Spencertown Academy Enters the Fifth Decade of its Third Life
There’s a large, warm spot in Clare Verenazi’s heart for the Spencertown Academy Arts Center. “Spencertown Academy was where my husband went to school in the 1940s, and he walked there and home everyday,” says the 78-year-old Chatham resident. “We’d enjoy Christmas pageants and year-end picnics, which were fun festivities for the whole town.”
Thanks to the efforts of Verenazi and her like-minded neighbors, Spencertown Academy has long since been transformed from an outmoded, abandoned schoolhouse to a thriving, vibrant community center that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Now entering its 40th year, Spencertown Academy Arts Center presents a broad range of cultural offerings, including folk, blues, and chamber music concerts; classes in ballet and yoga; arts-based educational programs for elementary-school children; readings and spoken word performances; and exhibitions ranging from British 19th-century Neoclassical sketches to abstract sculpture to photography, on top of its annual Festival of Books, which draws authors and bibliophiles from across the region.
Spencertown Academy was founded in 1847 as a college to train teachers for public schools of the surrounding region. The school was shepherded into existence by the eccentric idealist Dr. Timothy Woodbridge, the blind pastor of the village’s Saint Peter’s Church, who sought to spread post-federalist secular knowledge to men and, surprisingly for the pre-Civil War era, women. Woodbridge was a grandson of Stockbridge theologian Jonathan Edwards and cousin to Aaron Burr. The white Greek Revival schoolhouse he sited on a lofty, hilltop perch overlooking the village, embodied the pastor’s reverence for universal education.
About 30 years later, the Academy was reborn into its second life as a two-room schoolhouse serving local children from first to eighth grade. Says Spencertown Academy’s executive director Mary Anne Lee, “Every small New England town used to have a schoolhouse since the children had to walk. Many in Spencertown remember walking to school here—a potbelly woodstove in the classroom, going out to get wood, and walking home for lunch. Everyone sat in one of two rooms and each year you would progress up a row as you grew.”
Surprisingly, Spencertown Academy remained a public school until 1970, when the children began to be bussed into Chatham for classes. The empty building was falling into disrepair when members of the community, including Verenazi, formed the Spencertown Academy Society to preserve the historic schoolhouse and reinvent it as an arts center. The Academy’s doors were re-opened in 1972 after these industrious citizens held bake sales, white elephant tag sales, and fund drives, and opened a small bric-a-brac shop in the building. Recalls Verenazi, “When we decided to reinvest in the property in 1972, we started with pennies and bit-by-bit we raised money and built the structure back up.”
Since then, Spencertown Academy has pursued its mission of providing a space for art exhibitions, performances, education, and community, maintaining relevance over the decades by catering to diverse populations during a period when many other arts institutions have sprung up in the area. According to Lee, the Academy was, in its early years, “one of the only cultural performance and visual arts spaces in the county and frequently housed folk music greats such as singer-songwriter Tom Paxton and Jean Ritchie, a legendary folk singer known as ‘the Mother of Folk.’”
The Academy also served as a springboard for other, now prominent, regional arts organizations. Says Lee, “A couple of the bigger arts presenters in Columbia County—Tannery Pond Concerts and Stageworks—actually started at the Academy, which served as an incubator many years ago. It’s great to see them now, having grown to an important place in the arts world of our community.”
Today, marking its 40th anniversary, restored and repurposed, Spencertown Academy stands gleaming white, just as it might have in 1847 when its doors first opened, but for the brilliant pastel-colored Rietveld-style Wave Hill chairs that enliven the façade. To kick off this celebratory summer, the Academy is holding its Hidden Gardens Twilight benefit cocktail party on Friday, June 15, at the home of supporters Jami Rubin and Eric Reiff. The next day, Saturday, June 16, the Academy hosts the Garden Market on the Green, with specialty plants, birdhouses, gardening books, and garden furniture – including those Wave Hill chair replicas, unpainted – for sale.
At 9 a.m. there’s a lecture, The Art and Craft of the Garden, by Dan Benarcik, horticulturalist at Chanticleer Garden and instructor at the renowned Longwood Gardens. The Hidden Gardens Tour starts at 10 a.m., giving you the chance to see six exceptional private gardens. Lee notes: “The tour started as a neighborhood event and it struck a chord and went county-wide. The truth is, if you‘re a garden lover you’ll go anywhere for a good garden tour!” Another big draw is the commemorative illustrated guide, with contributions by Real Simple garden editor Madaline Sparks, artist Ellsworth Kelly, and art collector and designer Richard Eagan, co-owner of GRIS, the Hudson antiques shop.
Taking the long view, Lee (at left) is pleased with the Academy’s progress and its lasting influence on the regional cultural scene. “Small arts institutions are struggling all over the country, so we are particularly proud to have maintained this institution in our community. Forty years ago, there were very few opportunities in Columbia County to hear live performance and see visual arts. Now you can’t swing a cat without hitting a great chamber music series or a wonderful gallery.” Acknowledging Spencertown Academy’s role in the region’s development, Lee sees more to come in the arts center’s next 40 years. –Kimberly Jordan Allen
Spencertown Academy 40th Anniversary
Friday, June 15
Twilight In the Garden cocktail party
Saturday, June 16
Garden Market on the Green
The Art & Craft of the Garden, lecture by Dan Benarcik
Celebrating the Art of the Garden, Hidden Gardens Tour