Can private sector save the Mohawk?

North Adams mayor seeks ideas for reviving theater

LIKE NORTH ADAMS, the community in which it is located, the Mohawk Theater has long been regarded as down and out. But as the town tries to reinvent itself as an arts and tourism destination, the marquee of the shuttered Mohawk, one of the last art-deco style movie houses in the nation, continuously beckons.

The Mohawk opened in 1938. It had a single balcony, 1,200 seats, and showed films on a single screen. As our movie-viewing habits shifted to the multiplex, the Mohawk sputtered in the 1980s and then shut down for good in 1991. It is largely a shell now with no walls and relatively little plumbing. But the marquee out front looks good, still beckoning.

There have been countless discussions over the years about what to do with the Mohawk, but nothing has ever worked out. Reestablishing it as movie house seems improbable. Restoring it as a theater for plays and other live events is hard to envision because of the lack of backstage space and competition from nearby venues at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams and a theater in Pittsfield 30 minutes away.

Former North Adams mayor John Barrett, who led efforts by the city to acquire the Mohawk, invested a lot of time and money (some of it donated by the Walmart on the outskirts of the city) in the venue, convinced it was critical to the future of the town. His successor, Richard Alcombright, tried to broker a partnership with the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, but nothing ever materialized.

“The Mohawk has, in a sense, become the mythological unicorn — a legend no one has quite figured out how to capture,” said a recent story in iBerkshires.com.

The current mayor, Thomas Bernard, has decided the best course of action is to put the theater up for sale and see what the private sector is interested in doing with it. “Even if the result is not viable, at least we can’t say then that nobody has done anything,” he said.

Still, for a building that’s been empty for almost 30 years, there’s a lot of sensitivity about what will happen to it. The current plan is for the City Council to declare the theater surplus municipal property, which will allow Bernard to put out a request for proposals and pick whichever one he likes, as long as the bid price is above the assessed value of $446,400.

But this week a subcommittee of the City Council recommended that two conditions be placed on the sales process. One condition would require the mayor to present each private sector proposal to the City Council, so members of the public could weigh in. The second condition would require the winning bidder to retain the theater marquee, even if the building is no longer being used as a theater.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

City Councilor Benjamin Lamb thought the restrictions were appropriate. “The committee felt these restrictions provided structure, transparency, an opportunity for community feedback at major points in the process, and maintained the most core and important part of the building, without becoming over-restrictive to a point that it would prevent [responses] from coming forth,” he said.

The marquee continues to beckon.