OUTSIDE THE BOX

READING - Months from now, when virus fears have subsided and temperatures have risen, Reading residents will fill downtown stores again. When that happens, Jonathan Barnes isn’t asking you to stop and smell the roses. But the town’s chair of the Historical Commission has another request. Make sure and stop to admire the utility boxes.

Utility boxes? What does a utility box have to do with the Reading Historical Commission?

“We preserve the historical structures in town but we also celebrate Reading’s history. So, we participate in a whole host of town events,” said Barnes, listing the New Residents Open House, the Reading Garden Club, the Reading Arts Festival, and the Fall Street Faire as examples.

“Reading is an incredibly old and historic town, having been around since just after the country was founded. We have a lot of old structures, and a lot of history in this town. While we spend most of our time dealing with the structures, we try to spend a fair amount of time acknowledging and publicizing and celebrating Reading’s history.”

Which leads to those big, black, okay ugly, boxes that dot the downtown area. Where you and I might see, and probably ignore, those 6-foot tall boxes, Barnes saw a blank canvas for telling Reading’s story. He had some help, too.

Sarah Brukilacchio was a member of the town’s 375th celebration, focused on the “If This House Could Talk” portion of the two-week event. Last November she mentioned to Barnes that in a number of Boston area communities there were utility boxes that had photographic artwork on them, what Barnes calls “vinyl wraps.” The photos were old historic shots in communities like Plymouth and Newton and they often included that town’s logos. Brukilacchio said they looked great. Barnes was intrigued by the thought of turning Reading’s old historic photos, currently stored in the Town Hall, into utility box art.

With Brukilacchio’s help, Barnes was introduced to the artist behind the work, Franklin Marval. That soon led to a discussion with the full Historical Commission.

Call it a case of “great-minds-think-alike” if you wish, but along the same time that Barnes and the commission was pondering vinyl wraps, Reading’s Staff Planner Andrew MacNichol was doing the same, but with a slightly different twist. As the emails between commission members were going back and forth, it didn’t take long before an administrative assistant at Town Hall noticed the discussion and brought MacNichol and Barnes together.

“I had no idea, nor did he have any idea,” said Barnes of the similar plans. “It was a bit of serendipity that we each realized we were working on very similar projects at exactly the same time.”

MacNichol’s twist to the idea involved inviting local artists to paint the utility boxes. Called “Outside the Box,” the town has invited artists to submit their ideas to a review team made up of citizens and town employees. Proposals will be judged on creativity, community pride, originality, and appropriate regard for the nature of the space and audience. Artists selected to participate would receive an $800 stipend. That process has started and applications are available on the town website, reading.gov. The deadline is April 15 with all work to be completed by August 28.

While the town has targeted 10 utility boxes for artistic upgrades, the Historical Commission is starting smaller.

“We have a very, very small budget of $1,500 annually. So, we thought we would pilot the possibility of one of these vinyl wraps on a utility box in the downtown area,” said Barnes, adding that each wrap costs roughly $1,000.

The commission would like to do four utility boxes but needs money from the town to make it happen.

“They liked the project, they thought it was a good idea,” said Barnes, adding that Town Manager Bob LeLacheur was supportive of the idea and said he would look for funding for the additional utility boxes. But that was weeks ago.

“This whole coronavirus thing has exploded since then,” said Barnes.

For now, the Historical Commission is going to go ahead with the utility box opposite Town Hall, while waiting on additional funding. Part of that financial discussion was supposed to take place at last week’s Select Board meeting, but an abbreviated agenda meant the project received just a mention.

Regardless, the town’s utility boxes are in for a change. Black is out. History and art will soon be in. The utility box in front of Town Hall will soon be wrapped in a photo of Reading’s mid-1800s town common. It could include the town logo, along with a QR code leading to more Reading history.

“The goal isn’t necessarily from our standpoint to beautify the utility boxes. But rather to use them as a vehicle to publicize Reading’s history,” said Barnes, a Reading resident of more than 30 years. “They’re in a downtown area where there’s a fair amount of traffic, whether vehicular or pedestrian. It happens to be a noteworthy historical area, so they happen to be a good vehicle, if you’ll pardon the expression, on which to publicize Reading’s history. It will serve also at the same time, as a secondary goal, to make these utility boxes which kind of stand out as a sore thumb, more attractive.”

Even with coronavirus dominating the headlines, Barnes can look ahead.

“It would be a great feeling,” said Barnes of seeing residents looking at the utility boxes later this summer. “I think it’s going to be real gratifying … just people interested in the history of the town in which we live.”

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