Idle for two years, historic Berkshire Record building sold; will house design center

The former Berkshire Record building will house Jennifer Bianco’s contemporary design center. Photo: Terry Cowgill

GREAT BARRINGTON — One of downtown’s signature buildings is being repurposed after shutting its doors two years ago as a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The old Berkshire Record building at 21 Elm Street was purchased just after the new year by Great Barrington developer Robert Beusman — better known as Bobby Houston — for $450,000, according to town property records.

Bobby Houston. Photo provided

In an Edge interview, Houston said the building, historically known as the George Briggs House, is being transformed into a contemporary design center that will house the new offices of Jennifer Bianco, a noted interior designer in the Berkshires who once worked as creative director for the now-defunct Country Curtains and was a buyer for Martha Stewart Living.

Houston characterized the new space as a “department store” with different rooms, each featuring items peculiar to that room: to wit, a library where books are sold; a dining room featuring items one might find in a well-designed dining room.

“I felt there was a need for a more contemporary design center,” Houston said. “The younger people who are coming up to live here are used to more modern and mid-century furnishings which we don’t have a lot of here.”

“Jennifer has a design business that’s been going now for 15 years, so it’s the headquarters for her design business, and it’s a showroom and retail store,” Houston continued.

The west wing of the building was gutted. Photo via Facebook

The building was stripped down to the studs. Some walls that had been added were removed. Two levels of drop ceilings were taken out. Houston said six rooms that had been cobbled in were opened back up and the ceilings are now as high as they were originally. Houston’s contractors also opened up a lot of doorways that had been closed up over time.

Bianco told The Edge she had collaborated previously with Houston and his partner Eric Shamie, both seasoned renovators with a passion for historic preservation. Bianco had been working out of her Great Barrington home and mentioned to Houston that she was looking for a larger space for her business in a higher-traffic area.

“Then he came back to me and said, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about buying this building. Do you want to put your space there?’” Bianco recalled. “It just kind of morphed into, ‘Let’s just take the whole building and bring something interesting to Great Barrington.”

Jennifer Bianco. Photo via LinkedIn

Bianco’s focus is on textiles, window treatment and soft goods. Her office at 21 Elm Street is upstairs. Bianco is convinced that she has the right niche to succeed in downtown Great Barrington.

“I think we’re a little different than the other designers and home stores because we have a pretty big focus on mid-century antique pieces,” she said. “Our focus is not on brand-new furnishings, so I think that kind of sets us apart from the other shops.”

Not long after the Berkshire Record officially shut its doors on May 1, 2020, the property was placed on the market for $650,000. The 4,600-square-foot Italian Revival-style building, which is said to be historic, sits on one-tenth of an acre behind Carr Hardware. It was built in 1875 or thereabouts.

Tony and Donna Prisendorf. Photo courtesy Aston Magna

The Edge reached out to Anthony and Donna Prisendorf, who owned the Record’s parent company, Limestone Communications, for some history of the property. The Record began publishing in 1989 out of a storefront that once housed the Castle Street Cafe (now the home of Number 10), eventually purchasing 21 Elm Street from Monterey resident Jane Carpenter, who had previously converted the building to four apartments. The Record moved operations to that location in 1993.

Tony Prisendorf said that initially, the house with its 10-foot ceilings and ornate trim was illuminated by gas. While electricians were rewiring parts of the building recently, they found a sealed gas line that fed the ceiling lamp hanging in the front entrance hallway. 

“Judging by the massive cast iron radiators, the house was probably heated by a coal (or later gas) furnace in the basement, augmented by cast-iron parlor stoves at least on the first floor,” Tony Prisendorf explained. “The building has two chimneys but I could never find evidence of a fireplace. I did find what must have been sealed flue holes in each chimney for the parlor stoves.”

Renovations to 21 Elm Street began over shortly after Houston acquired the property on January 4, 2022. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Houston said 21 Elm was originally a “grand home and then, over the years, it was everything else. It was apartments. It was offices.” For good measure, Houston renamed the building. It’s now called “Scout House,” after the highly intelligent tomboyish young daughter of Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

Bianco said she plans to be open by the first week of May in time for Mothers’ Day. The retail business will be open six days a week from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. It will be closed on Tuesdays.

“We feel it represents a great symbol of 19th century life in a small New England town,” Donna Prisendorf said of 21 Elm Street. “We loved that building and are very happy that we sold it to someone who will respect it in its next reincarnation.”

Ninjay H Briotyon

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