August 31, 2016

The "Scrappy" Example of the Mohawk Valley Collective

  • By: Julia Rocchi
Mohawk Valley Aerial

photo by: Tolga J. Morawski

Downtown Fort Plain, New York (with Unity Hall center right) as seen from a 1949 Piper Cub, piloted by Ray Gould.

Though he lived in New York City, Tolga Morawski was always drawn back to his childhood home in the Mohawk Valley in Upstate New York. In 2011, he founded the Mohawk Valley Collective (then Historic Fort Plain) with the mission of rehabilitating local historic landmarks and buildings, revitalizing neighborhoods, and providing arts and cultural opportunities in the Mohawk Valley Region.

Morawski recently spoke with the National Trust's Julia Rocchi about his connection to his hometown, what drew him to preservation work, the successes of his small nonprofit, and the challenges the organization still faces.

Describe the community and the area where you grew up.

I grew up in a small upstate-New York village called Fort Plain, with a population of roughly 2,000 people. The village sprang up around the Erie Canal in the 1820s from what had been a trading post for the Palatine Dutch (German) and other early farmers prior to the American Revolution.

Down the road about three miles is the similarly sized village of Canajoharie, the more affluent of the pair, and the original home to Beech Nut Foods. Canajoharie has a picturesque downtown while Fort Plain is more working-class, a bit rough around the edges.

Taken together the two provide a snapshot of rural America from the late 19th and early 20th century, a la Norman Rockwell. The street I was raised on is dotted with a variety of trees, old maples, a pair of beautiful white, towering London Planes, and as a child it was interspersed with chestnut trees, which sadly are gone now. Our home, a mansard-roofed Italianate, sits on a corner at the base of a hill, and my bedroom’s bay window looked out over the village.

Mohawk Valley Collective Unity Hall

photo by: David Engelhardt

Unity Hall at dusk.

Mohawk Valley Collective Tolga Morawski

photo by: David Engelhardt

MVC Co-founder and Treasurer, Tolga J. Morawski.

What about it has stayed with you and driven you over time?

My father grew up in Argusville, a now mostly vanished hamlet outside Canajoharie and my mother was from Istanbul. He was a small-town farm boy and she was a law student who worked her way through college as a flight attendant, so the circumstances that brought us together in Fort Plain made it somewhat surreal.

From a young age I traveled a great deal, later living many places. However, I came to recognize something magical in the Mohawk Valley. I’ve glimpsed a similar special something in places like Marfa in Texas and I don’t think it’s simply nostalgia.

That said, it doesn’t hurt that you can walk into places like Geesler’s, the local plumbing & electrical supply store, and it’s outfitted as if it was still 1925. Sadly the reason for much of this passive preservation is that the economic booms of the last few decades have largely passed the area by.

That decline is at the heart of what drives me. As these communities show their age the need to advocate for and bring them to wider attention to sustain them has become more pressing. Nearby, the old resort town of Sharon Springs has been experiencing somewhat of a renaissance and has inspired hopes for a wider resurgence through the area.

Mohawk Valley Collective Audience 2

photo by: Tolga J. Morawski

Musician Mike Doughty on stage at Unity Hall.

You mentioned that you "grew up in the darkroom" with your father, who documented buildings, and that you also had a paper route in Fort Plain that took you through areas in decline. How did these early experiences influence your interest in the places and structures around you?

Yes, my father was a photographer, and had the first studio in the county to switch over to color film, which was thought to be a fad at the time. While his work was predominantly weddings and portraiture, he had a side business making postcards for area businesses and landmarks, and they were everywhere.

As a child it was a point of pride for me to see the spinning racks of postcards, many stamped with my father’s name on the back. They would often sit next to even older postcards of the same buildings, and led me to discover earlier artists Rufus Grider and Fritz Vogt who documented many of the same sites and scenes.

As a paperboy from age 12 through leaving for college, I walked the streets of the villages every day; I was witness to the other side of this, the gradual decline of economic hardship, the distancing from those old postcards.I was left with a subtle and lingering sadness at the impending loss, the death of the area.

Having grown up in my father’s darkroom I had an understanding of the process, and my father gave me my first 35mm SLR as a freshman in college. I toyed with it, shooting artistic abstractions, but it was upon returning to Fort Plain after that first year away I was compelled to document, voraciously.

I felt if things must disappear they would not go forgotten. So many wonderful buildings had already disappeared, such as the magnificent old Wagner Hotel in Canajoharie, demolished for a drive-through teller at the local bank. However, one, the old Cinema, stuck out in my mind.

I had 30 years' worth of my father’s old negatives in our basement, and often old-timers would ask me for a reprint of a photo lost, destroyed in a fire, etc. One of them interested in history was always looking for old photos of buildings, and for a time he was consumed with finding a photo of the old movie theater which had been downtown for over 50 years, but demolished before my time. He never found a photo and this seemed to sadden him tremendously. It was as if the building had never existed at all; only his fleeting memories still recalled it.

Mohawk Valley Collective Exterior

photo by: Aerial Solutions

West Hill School reflecting extensive patching MVC has done on the roof.

Describe your path to forming the Mohawk Valley Collective. What event, incident, or place inspired you to create it? What need(s) does it serve in the community?

After many years simply documenting buildings, I felt that I needed to play a more active role in preservation. Through a chance invitation, I ended up at the AIA’s celebration of the 75th Anniversary of HABS (Historic American Building Survey) meeting photographers Jack Boucher and Jet Lowe, and others who would become close friends, such as Mary Habstritt, that helped drive my desire to do more.

I became a member and later an officer of the Roebling Chapter of the Society of Industrial Archeology and waded into advocacy. I was living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, during a period of great upheaval and well, my spirit animal was the Domino Sugar factory. It represented everything from the worst of capitalism, the industry of man, to the struggle for workers, and it was amazing architecture! It also interested me in the human side of preservation via the strike that eventually led to the plant’s closing. It was a lesson that buildings are more than objects, and that preservation is messy and complicated, in that case, pitting low-income housing advocates against preservation.

Following that experience, I realized that preservation also required vesting and personal investment—to put skin in the game, so to speak. Unfortunately, city-scale preservation wasn’t something I could really move the dial on, and it was the height of the economic crisis, leading me to a period of discouragement where I stepped back from preservation.

It was a couple years later when I heard that the wonderful Richardsonian Romanesque church down the street from my childhood home had been sold at a foreclosure auction for $508 and was slated for salvage of any valuable parts, then demolition.

That kicked off a summer of advocating. The Village had issued a demolition permit without following the proper process, so attempts were made to overturn it. We also tried to get the small local preservation group to take on what is a massive building (roughly 15,000 square feet) for the size of the community.

Unfortunately, as they were a graying group with limited resources and projects of their own, they opted not to step in. It was understandable, but also disheartening. What it did do was lead a few friends and I to realize that if we could not get others to do it we needed to be the change ourselves.

We pooled our resources, borrowing against credit cards, retirement, etc.; formed a non-profit with the help of a local accountant and attorney who had weak spots for preservation; and bought the building from the speculator for $30K. Soon after we rechristened the former Universalist Church as Unity Hall to begin to mend the rifts the contentious process opened up in the community.

Unity Hall serves the community by providing live music, arts shows, movie screenings, and social events that connect the community and help bring people together around those things locally. The area is considered “distressed” by the government, economically, in regards to jobs, opportunities to access and experience the arts, so for most of these things people need to leave the area.

The hope is through Unity Hall and our other efforts we can retain and attract people to this wonderful place, to share the magic of Fort Plain, Canajoharie, and that of neighboring places.

Mohawk Valley Collective Audience 1

photo by: Tolga J. Morawski

A crowd enjoys a performance by musician Mike Doughty at Unity Hall.

What are the MVC's most immediate goals? What are you all hoping to achieve?

Our primary and immediate goal is to develop more sustainable lines of funding. Having no experience at running a hands-on nonprofit like the MVC—i.e. one with buildings to insure, maintain, and rehab—I was unfamiliar with the fundraising process and the hurdles involved.

Some of the most challenging are that fundraising in a poor area is incredibly difficult and that many grantors have little interest or are even averse to funding anything remotely considered either risky or as overhead.

To the first point, it’s hard for people who cannot afford to maintain their own homes to give to you to do the same on a community building, no matter how supportive they are of the effort. So volunteering is high, but a good deal of financial contributions have come from a small group of people; our board, a handful of well-to-do families, and those that have left the area for better opportunities.

That said, last year we brought in just shy of $100K, roughly 50% of which was in grants. For a 4-year-old nonprofit in a small community, I think that’s pretty respectable; my concern is in how sustainable it is.

The other challenge is grants. We’ve done very well at finding grants, grant-writing, etc. However, so much of the funding landscape is geared towards projects and well-established groups. I understand risk aversion, the desire for accountability, and to have something you can point to as the results of investment, but there also needs to be recognition that small organizations need help keeping the lights on, so to speak.

For example, we pay $4,000 per year in insurance on our buildings. We do the right thing in paying for workers comp, disability, and unemployment on our employees, including hiring people with few employment opportunities that we then train in the building trades, preservation interns we help develop (and pay) into tenacious and successful capital-‘P’ Preservationists, and others that move our projects forward, none of which the bulk of foundations seem interested in.

To me, capacity building is essential, and though I volunteer 20-30 hours a week to make the operation of MVC possible, it would be very difficult if we needed to pay someone to fill that role. As an engineer I have a different mindset and perspective on the state of preservation and the world of philanthropy, but I do feel if small/growing nonprofits aren’t given more thoughtful financial support, people will burn-out and exit the field.

So many advantages are given to established or ‘proven’ nonprofits with significant resources in applications and funding processes that there is little left for the nascent organizations out there. I understand there is an aversion to funding something that might fail, but the consequence is that the philanthropic world misses innovation and funding scrappy, resourceful organizations that will do much more with what they do receive.

Mohawk Valley Collective Interior

photo by: David Engelhardt

Arches with Moorish touches in the sanctuary at Unity Hall.

Mohawk Valley Collective Volunteer

photo by: Tolga J. Morawski

Brett String cuts underlayment for a new EPDM roof for a foreclosed building donated by Wells Fargo.

You mentioned that you want to "expand preservation beyond house museums." In your opinion, what does the future of preservation look like?

Yes, in part this is the innovation I feel needs to come to preservation. We need to do better in making the case for preservation, tying it to sustainability, buying/sourcing locally, helping people recognizing that it is green and makes the most financial sense, etc.

Preservation for its own sake, in my opinion, is a dead end and is hard to advocate for outside of the buildings we tend to put on a pedestal. I’m constantly focused on viability—working with limited resources within distressed communities I have to be. One way to do that is to literally enlist our communities in the process.

So while the MVC is focused on rehabbing our two primary properties—Unity Hall in Fort Plain, and the historic West Hill School in Canajoharie—we quickly realized that we needed to approach preservation in our area differently. We’ve partnered with villages in our region and Montgomery County at the next level up to survey and put in place National Register historic districts that have opened up literally thousands of property owners to utilize the historic tax credits while giving people pride-of-place in an area that to many, often seems to offer only negatives.

We have had a great deal of success, with minimal pushback from the adherents of the ‘I can paint my house purple if I want to’ mantra because our process engages residents as partners and promotes our architecture (much of it vernacular) and the fabric of our communities as something worthy of noting aside from standout landmark buildings.

These districts allow us to offer low-cost workshops and leverage work via incentives for preservation via federal and state credits over a much broader area than any projects we could do ourselves. After five years, we are on a trajectory towards the first fully districted county in the state, and the initiative is just one of many that reflects that young organizations are capable of things their scale may not seem to reflect.

For those familiar with the storied preservationist Morgan Phillips, they’ll know he was ahead of his time at every turn. He spent the later years of his life in Canajoharie and I believe he also recognized something very special about the valley.

The MVC continues to explore how to advance preservation, aid in economic development, and make what happens in Montgomery County and the Mohawk Valley relevant to the rest of the country.

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi was the senior director of digital marketing at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and gawks at buildings.

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