By Richard M. Madowitz, Owner and Property Manager
As part of our multi-year capital improvement project, Thornes has spent roughly $500,000 to make this eclectic, historically relevant downtown shopping center more accessible to people with physical disabilities.
We’re nearing the finish line, and we’re pleased to be updating and modernizing. Where feasible, we have also made our building compliant to the extent that is physically possible. We’re very pleased with the improvements and the increased opportunities it will afford members of the public.
Thornes has been the cornerstone of downtown Northampton and at the center of the Main Street shopping district for more than a century. Built in 1873, it holds 55,000 square feet of space for merchants and includes features such as pressed tin ceilings, hardwood floors and stained glass windows.
Renovations, completed without harm to the historic highlights, include the remodeling of several bathrooms, which are now fully handicapped accessible. We have also added oak handrails along the walls of the grand staircases. And, in partnership with Herrell’s Ice Cream, we replaced a staircase with a ramp, making the ice cream parlor accessible from within Thornes for the first time in its nearly 40-year history.
Judy Herrell, owner of the iconic ice cream parlor, tells us customers are loving the ramp, which opened on May 19, as well as the adjacent, fully accessible restroom. “We’re accessible, and that’s a very, very positive thing,” she said. “We are very grateful to Thornes. They went above and beyond the call to work with us.”
Until now, the ice cream shop accommodated customers with disabilities that prevented them from entering via Thornes by accepting orders over the phone and delivering them within the building. This often meant making a second trip to and from Herrell’s to process a debit or credit card.
The increased accessibility and other improvements in the building are creating some buzz on social media, and shoppers are expressing their gratitude. That brings our management team tremendous satisfaction on a personal level as we saw the effects of the building’s limitations for people with disabilities on a daily basis. For us to have the opportunity to improve their experience of Thornes has made us feel great. We’ve gotten instant feedback.
My business partner, Doug Kohl, and I bought Thornes 11 years ago. We had hoped to make improvements for accessibility for many years, but the high cost was prohibitive. In 2014, we hired Thomas Douglas Architects of Northampton to create a comprehensive multi-year plan for improving accessibility to bring the building into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
This was an optional move for us. It was a project we wanted to do, something we thought was important to and for our customers. Once the architectural plans were filed with the appropriate state boards, compliance was mandated, and the complex process was highly regulated.
Where compliance could not be achieved—at the outside entrance to Herrell’s, for instance, where the granite steps and steep slope of the street make the work impossible—Thornes received variances and the pre-existing conditions continue to be allowed.
Renovation work in the project began in 2015 and was overseen by Jon McGee, who has worked with Thornes for 22 years, 16 of them as our facilities manager.
Jon said another example of an architectural feature that Thornes was allowed to leave in place is the historical, 150-year-old wooden banisters on the grand staircases leading to upper and lower levels. We were allowed to add supplementary wooden handrails along the walls where no rail had existed. We intentionally invested in custom maple rails that match the existing structure, rather than using metal rails.
Renovations to the men’s bathroom on the first floor were extensive, requiring the removal of a step and considerable structural and architectural labor. Renovations to other bathrooms were less complex and involved rebuilding stalls to meet dimensional standards and ensuring access to fixtures.
Future labor will include remodeling the Main Street entrance, installing additional handrails, renovating a bathroom on the second floor and adjusting a ramp outside Acme Surplus, which is deemed too steep.
Stay tuned to our progress!