Master museum builder has big plans for North Adams
Training day Former governors William Weld (R) and Michael Dukakis (D) with Thomas Krens at Boston’s South Station.
Photos by Dominic Chavez and Renderings by Gluckman Tang Architects
Thomas Krens does not think small. As the former Guggenheim Foundation director, his ideas are big—especially when it comes to North Adams. When Krens looks at the city, he sees unfinished business, and that has been a motivator to organize a collaborative effort to transform North Adams into the hub of what he calls a “cultural corridor.”
At the center of Krens’s vision is an entirely revamped North Adams Heritage Park and Mohawk Theater in the downtown area, and a brand-new Global Contemporary Art Museum next to the Harriman-and-West Airport.
The privately funded art museum will display 400 works within a 160,000-square-foot space, 40,000 of which will be used for art storage. Krens’s plan takes advantage of private collections that need a secure place for their holdings. It’s the classic Krens single solution to several challenges—the frustration of great contemporary works being shut off from public consumption, the need of private collectors for art storage, and the addition of another major art museum to help shape the north-county cultural corridor.
Further plans include a “luxury art hotel” called the Wilsonian, in the spirit of the old Wilson House Hotel, lost to a fire in 1912, also on Main Street, and the transformation of an underused, expansive parking area into a town green featuring an outdoor skating rink, an amphitheater, a carousel, and community gardens.
(Photo: Artist rendering of the Global Contemporary Art Museum.)
Krens is also working to create a more traditional architecture museum on Route 2 to complement Heritage Park, and he’d like to extend the cultural corridor down Route 8 in the direction of Adams. The hope is that the Heritage Park project begins as early as the end of 2016.
“It wasn’t a messianic vision in the beginning,” Krens explains. “I wasn’t looking to do that. But then you look and start to add up the components.”
Krens made his mark—and established his legendary status—in North Adams 30 years ago when he created the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the renowned MASS MoCA, in collaboration with then-Governor Michael Dukakis and his successor, Governor William Weld (who is also the Libertarian Party nominee for vice president). Krens has since developed museums around the world through his company, Global Cultural Asset Management, and now he has reunited with the former governors to finish what they started in the 1980s in North Adams.
(Photo: Former Governor Dukakis (D) with Krens after announcing the MASS MoCA project in 1988. Behind them, former North Adams Mayor John Barrett III, left, and former state Representative Sherwood Guernsey.)
In his view, the expansions of MASS MoCA, the Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute, and the Williams College Museum of Art, as well as other substantial developments in North Adams, have merely primed the pump. “The conundrum has been, why hasn’t the economic impact of MASS MoCA been more substantial?” says Krens. “The reason is it turned out to be more of a daytrip than an overnight. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. You have to have the hotel rooms, but you also have to have more attractions. For many people, the Clark and MASS MoCA can be fit into a daytrip.”
For now, that is. Krens’s plans for Heritage Park take full advantage of Michael Dukakis’s expertise and interests. Dukakis created the Heritage Park program in the 1970s to revitalize historical sites across the state that were underutilized, and to increase economic activity through tourism. But the North Adams park never reached its potential. Krens’s plan is to anchor the project with the Extreme Model Railroad & Contemporary Architecture Museum, designed by architect Richard Gluckman, who is also designing the Global Contemporary Art Museum. Added to that will be the Museum of Time, featuring industrial railroad clocks; the Mt. Greylock Distillery, designed by Jean Nouvel; a dining-car restaurant; and a chocolatier, along with other retail stores and the park’s mainstay Freight Yard Pub.
(Photo: Artist rendering of the Extreme Model Railroad & Contemporary Architecture Museum)
“The Heritage Park thing was really my baby,” Dukakis says. “Things were not moving in the direction we had hoped, so the idea of having this Extreme Model Railroad is going to be great. And, of course, I love trains.”
It was Weld’s idea that the two ex-governors team up with Krens, helping to create the project’s funding strategy. Weld leapt at the chance to finish the job in North Adams and collaborate with Krens again, having worked with him on Guggenheim projects in both New York City and Spain. “He is the premier visionary in the world of how to elevate the everyday to the level of art,” Weld says.
Plus, Weld and Dukakis share a bond that goes far beyond political parties. “Mike and I are both railroad buffs,” says Weld, “and love the idea of bringing the history of American railroads to life.”
As a former Republican governor, Weld was able to call on current Republican Governor Charlie Baker for help. By the end of 2015, the Baker administration showed that support when Lt. Governor Karyn Polito signed a Community Compact with North Adams that offers various local aid and technical assistance.
The Extreme Model Railroad & Contemporary Architecture Museum, the proposed “nerve center” of the park, will have an education center for kids. The 670-foot-long gallery with 41-foot-high ceilings will feature 100 trains running through nearly nine miles of track that includes reproductions of North Adams and the Hoosac Tunnel, several architectural landmarks, 125,000 human figures, and 40,000 trees. All of it will be controlled by what Krens describes as a NASA-like mission-control center of more than 20 computer screens that visitors can view.
For Krens, the curiosity in model trains began when he intended to sell a model-train set for his son years before. While doing some research, he fell down the rabbit hole of model railroading and became fascinated with high-end modelers and with the Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, Germany.
An enthralled Krens thought first of China for a model-railroad attraction, but soon shifted his focus to North Adams when he realized it was the perfect site for everything he envisioned. Krens credits Mayor Richard Alcombright and the city’s solicitor, John DeRosa, for showing him the light. Krens hadn’t seen Heritage Park in two decades and wasn’t interested, certain it wasn’t big enough for everything he wanted to include. That changed during a bike ride to the site, and the conception for what he calls a “cultural theme park.”
What sets the model-train museum apart from its German inspiration is the O-gauge scale of its models, featuring 1:47-scale trains, larger than the traditional model trains most people are used to, which allows for more historical precision and detail.
“The precision of the O-scale modeling dwarfs anything I have ever seen,” Weld says.
The expanse of the tracks and the scale of the models inspired Krens to set up a laboratory in his own basement in order to work out all the possible problems. “I just knew enough to know that I knew I couldn’t do it,” says Krens. “There was nobody I could hire to do it, so we had to develop our own team to figure everything out.”
Krens has worked with others in his lab for three years, observing and developing on a smaller scale the complexity of the industrial-scale electronics required for the museum. With 25 trains running, as well as building a prototype of the Empire State Building model, Krens and company have been piecing together the project and attending to every detail, whether it involves the 105 track switches on a 100-foot prototype or creating three-inch windows on all four sides of the 288-square-foot Empire State Building. One of the current issues the technical team is solving: as more trains run, signals become tangled.
“We have to work with manufacturers, we have to do research daily to solve these technical problems,” Krens explains. “Then there’s the precision-scale modeling absolute reality, which you don’t see anywhere. And then there’s the negotiation with the architects. This is an enterprise of some bewildering complexity.”
Krens plans to invite the best railroad modelers in the country to work for the museum, and he believes North Adams will become a mecca where the best model craftspeople in the world will want to live.
His team-building effort extends to the Mohawk Theater, bringing members of his Guggenheim Motorcycle Club like Jeremy Irons, Laurence Fish-burne, and Lauren Hutton into the consulting mix, as well as a number of partners pledging involvement in running the space—from expected institutions like MASS MoCA, the Berkshire International Film Festival, and the Williamstown Theatre Festival to new participants like the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts based in Holyoke.
“I have some credibility, because why would the state be interested in supporting all of this? It’s not just the ideas,” Krens says. “It’s the execution that they’re interested in. I spent five days thinking about it, two days organizing a meeting of all these people, and everybody’s on board. So now we’re working on the legislation to get the funding with the state to have a piece in it for the Mohawk Theater.”
Krens has managed to attract a number of local investors to his team, some of whom were also involved in bringing MASS MoCA to life, like Allan Fulkerson, Duncan Brown, and Jim Hunter, as well as new members like Dr. Gray Ellrodt.
“The momentum thus far has been good,” Hunter says. “The interest has been good. Interest on the part of the state has been excellent.”
Dukakis and Weld envision tying the project to the larger future in Massachusetts, one with high-speed rail connecting the Berkshires to Boston.
“The fact that we’re involved and one of us is a Republican and one of us is a Democrat, which just doesn’t happen very often these days, is an important statement,” Dukakis says. “And then you put the entire state-transportation picture together and link it to northern Berkshires.”
Adds Krens: “There will be nothing like this in the world, nothing like this anywhere."