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The Alumni
In this issue's Alumni section:
Foreigner at Radcliffe - Success, 25 Years Out - Young at Harvard - Voters' Choice - Mount Harvard Club - Recordbreakers - Medalists Three - Preservationist - Sister Act - Yesterday's News

For more alumni web resources, check out Harvard Gateways, the Harvard Alumni Association's website
John Colony stands next to a mechanism for controlling water power to the mills. © STEVE HOOPER


John Colony '67 is a businessman with a mission: preserving the lovely New England village he grew up in. His family's textile mill was virtually the only employer in tiny Harrisville, New Hampshire, but by the late sixties New England mills were becoming unable to compete in world markets. When Colony returned from a stint in the Coast Guard in 1970, his father and uncle were in the process of closing the mill, putting 250 people out of work. Two things struck Colony as worth preserving: an architectural ensemble of commercial and residential structures that had survived virtually intact from the Civil War period, and a way of life in a small community.

Keeping both intact has been a challenge. Colony refused to create a living museum like Williamsburg, or sell the old buildings as vacation homes. Both would have displaced even more people who had lived and worked in the village for generations. Instead, ownership of most of the historically valuable property was transferred to Historic Harrisville, a public foundation he helped create, which has raised money to preserve the structures. He and other residents also lobbied successfully to have the village declared a national historic district. "We're involved in historic preservation, but not tourism," he says. "That's quite rare. The director of an English historic industrial site who visited was quite jealous."

Preserving a living community required a variety of measures. The newest mill buildings were sold to an environmentally friendly small company that produced drinking fountains. Old buildings, some boarded up for years, were recycled as premises for other business ventures and affordable housing. In 1971--against his better judgment, he says--Colony founded a new textile business. Harrisville Designs originally used local residents' expertise to manufacture yarns and handwoven fabrics. Now it also produces handlooms and sponsors workshops that bring master weavers and students together from late spring through fall each year.

The challenges have continued. As more women entered the work force and had less time for traditional crafts, the company responded by producing small looms and toys for children that were marketed at alternative toy stores. Then, last summer, the owners of the drinking-fountain factory, the village's largest employer, announced plans to relocate to Keene. Historic Harrisville raised the money to buy the four-building complex and is developing a plan for reuse. "Ideally," says Colony, "we'll be able to attract a range of businesses typical of New Hampshire--electronics, publishing, environmental investigation--so we don't run the risk of having just one tenant. My own dream is to have 50 or 60 townspeople employed there."

When he was an undergraduate, Colony says, he had no particular interest in architecture, although he absorbed a respect for the College's history. "When I walk through the Yard now, though," he says, "I tend to see it as a physical plant with challenges similar to ours. I think about bricks and slate. Harvard is a kind of lab for us. It's hard to adapt an eighteenth-century building to new uses, so we notice what they do, since they're always looking for a better solution. Harvard isn't a museum either, and it's a real job to keep everybody happy in a historic environment.

~ Deborah Schneider

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