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Fruitlands seeks special permit, noncompliance relief

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HARVARD — Historic traditions embodied in a 2,500-acre site on Prospect Hill and a documented commitment to the goals of founder Clara Endicott Sears make Fruitlands Museum more than just another museum, according to Fruitlands officials and the attorney who represented them at a Zoning Board of Appeals hearing.

Attorney Robert Cox, in a nearly three-hour presentation on April 12, argued that Fruitlands is unique, and that the tea room and tent are not only vital financially, but intrinsic to its form and function. The tea room and tent must be viewed as “part and parcel” of the museum, he said.

The tea room/tent, with its stunning views, overlooks buildings and landscape central to Fruitlands’ educational mission, Cox said. The buildings include the house and the Shaker, Indian and art museums. At the foot of the hill is the Fruitlands farmhouse. In the 19th century, Bronson Alcott and other transcendentalists created a utopian community there.

Cox addressed two applications Fruitlands has filed with the zoning board. One seeks relief from a noncompliance notice from building commissioner Gabriel Vellante. The other requests a special permit for the tea room and tent based on seating capacities that range from 100 to over 200, indoors and out.

Vellante’s objection is that a nonconforming use in the residential/agricultural-zoned area has expanded without required permits, among other issues. Records show no new permit applications filed for roughly 20 years. Museum officials have said they were not aware of the gap and now want to remedy the situation.

Museum President Robert Anderson and veteran Fruitlands trustee Frank Coolidge attested to timelines and provided other insights.

Anderson sketched history, including “gradual” changes.

Coolidge, a former Harvard resident appointed to the board in 1958, said the biggest expenses were docent — interpreter — salaries, collections, and maintaining grounds and buildings. Two major revenue sources are rental income and Sears’ endowment.

This is an educational institution, he said, but the museum needs money to fulfill its mission, and 2000 was a “desperate year” due to water supply issues. Then came another big ticket item: A new, larger septic system that is now nearly complete.

According to officials from Fruitlands and two other area museums, eateries such as the tea room/tent help pay the bills and are part of the experience visitors expect.

Kent Russell, executive director of the Higgins Armory Museum, in Worcester, and president elect of the New England Museum Association, said most museums today include an eatery.

John Ott, of Groton, director of the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, agreed. The 30-year-old museum has added a 24-seat caf to its 8,200-square-foot facility. The cafe is an amenity, he said, like a gift shop or restrooms.

”It’s part of the culture,” he said. “Museums can’t exist without them.”

Ott formerly directed the Hancock Shaker Village Museum in the Berkshires where food service has also been added.

”Does your museum serve alcohol?” asked zoning board Chairman Christopher Tracey.

”Yes, we do,” said Ott.

Wine and beer are “expected” for functions, he said, and an outside bartender is hired.

”I would say to you that Fruitlands is Harvard’s museum,” Ott said. The museum is simply trying to bring an “early resource” into modern times. “It is part of the fabric of the community. It would be a tragedy not to have it.”

Sears would agree. Although her vision did not include alcoholic beverages, she planned the tea room, which stands where her summer home once did. Pitching the idea to her trustees in the 1930’s, she said people who visited Fruitlands should be able to eat there.

Today, visitors come to Fruitlands from across the nation and the world. According to functions director Peggy Kempton, about 85,000 people visited in 2005, and about 35,000 people had lunch in the tea room. The counts do not show how many do both, however, she said it is not necessary to have paid museum admission to eat at the tea room.

The hearing will resume on Wednesday, April 26 at 7:10 p.m. in the Town Hall Meeting Room.

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