Colrain Roundhouse, a historic home for the arts, being sold to new owner

The Roundhouse on Van Nuys Road in Colrain is being sold on March 12. Philip Watson and four other builders brought the unique structure, consisting of a living space plus a performing arts space, to life ahead of its February 1994 opening.

The Roundhouse on Van Nuys Road in Colrain is being sold on March 12. Philip Watson and four other builders brought the unique structure, consisting of a living space plus a performing arts space, to life ahead of its February 1994 opening. FOR THE RECORDER/AALIANNA MARIETTA

The Roundhouse on Van Nuys Road in Colrain is being sold on March 12. Philip Watson and four other builders brought the unique structure, consisting of a living space plus a performing arts space, to life ahead of its February 1994 opening.

The Roundhouse on Van Nuys Road in Colrain is being sold on March 12. Philip Watson and four other builders brought the unique structure, consisting of a living space plus a performing arts space, to life ahead of its February 1994 opening. FOR THE RECORDER/AALIANNA MARIETTA

By AALIANNA MARIETTA

For the Recorder

Published: 03-11-2024 6:38 PM

COLRAIN — Storytellers, artists and longtime visitors walked the empty rooms of the Roundhouse on Sunday, swapping memories and saying goodbye to what has been a home for collective creativity.

The Van Nuys Road building, which has been owned by Rebecca “Bekki” Tippens for three decades, is being sold on March 12 as Tippens transitions to living closer to her son and his family in Connecticut.

From dream to reality

A storyteller herself, Tippens envisioned the Roundhouse as a home for both her family and the arts. After teaching sociology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, she moved to Colrain to join the town’s theater community.

“I wanted to teach my kids that you can live by your passion,” Tippens said.

When her son knocked on their neighbor’s door for a school project and learned that the fiddler next door also built houses, Tippens’ vision for the Roundhouse started to become a reality. A friendship grew between Tippens and the neighbor, Philip Watson, and before long he offered to build that dream.

“She wanted to build a space that had a concept [that] would be her living space plus an inclusive performing arts space, and those two things were going to work together,” Watson recounted.

The Roundhouse’s signature circle shape came to Tippens in a dream.

“In this dream, this fairy comes to me and she says, ‘Bekki, let me show you my house.’ So she shows me this round house with all these little secret passageways,” and the design for her dream took shape. “With a square, the energy gets stuck in the corners,” Tippens clarified.

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Watson and four other builders constructed the building’s dome structure first, fine-tuning its dimensions for the perfect performance acoustics. Under the center floor tile, they built a tunnel where performers surprised audiences mid-song.

“Somebody pops out of the trapdoor in the middle of the floor and being a little kid, you’re just so excited,” recalled Eliza Hollister, a neighbor who grew up listening to stories and watching plays at the Roundhouse.

“It’s so different now than it has ever been because it was so lived-in and there was so much decoration and books,” Hollister continued, referencing the lack of fixtures as Tippens prepares to move. “To see it totally clear is very strange, but it’s also very beautiful.”

Tapping into ‘architectural magic’

A professional juggler for many years and now a motivational speaker, Greenfield resident Rob Peck recalled performing in the Winter Solstice celebration at the Roundhouse. On the longest night of each year, crowds watched local storytellers perform together for about three hours, one of the many events where community and creativity collided at Tippens’ Roundhouse.

“In this very space, I have told stories, I have juggled fruit, I have balanced nine blocks on my nose, I have danced, I have played music in various arrangements with other musicians, I have sang, I’ve had an audience volunteer come up and try to catch an apple … and I’ve burst through the seemingly solid floor,” Peck recounted, adding that he “loved the camaraderie and being part of something that was a good time for a great cause.”

With Tippens donating proceeds to organizations like the Boston-based nonprofit Partners in Health or local food banks, “none of the artists pocketed a penny.” But the celebrations gave Peck something intangible in return.

“The crowd really was with us and it feels good if you’re a performer to have an intergenerational audience where you look out and you see little kids’ eyes as big as saucers, but also elders who are looking at you with great joy and enthusiasm,” he described with a smile.

Besides the other artists, Peck said he felt he collaborated with someone, or something, else.

“There was almost like another performer in the cast, and it wasn’t visible to the naked eye, but it was the architecture,” he said. “Every performance was graced by the kind of architectural magic of this space and we played to that strength.”

Performers would peek out from the balconies and blow conch horns from nooks upstairs before stepping out and surprising the audience.

Plays, acupuncture workshops, Reiki healing, anniversaries, weddings, reunions and fiddle concerts represent a sampling of the events hosted at the Roundhouse over the decades.

“Bekki has always supported these community-wide events,” said Bob Armstrong, longtime visitor and friend of Tippens. “In many ways, it put Colrain on the map.”

An in-home adventure

A library curls around the left side of the dome, empty without Tippens’ favorite stories. In the kitchen next door, stocked “with every bean you could ever imagine,” Tippens cooked for the guests. She and Watson chuckled over one annual party when they cooked 10 gallons of chili for fiddlers from across the country.

Upstairs, there are 31 bedrooms for visitors. Pointing to the bedroom where shamans and teachers stayed, Tippens noted, “It had a real sacred feeling in it. … Maybe it was just the built-up energy of all these wonderful multidimensional people staying here.”

Up the stairs through a “secret passageway” in one of the bedrooms, “nooks” of beds line the third floor. A cupola with a patio tops off the Roundhouse, where visitors and performers can peer through the hole in the center of the floor, covered by a wire flower inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe’s artwork, and holler down into the dome.

“It’s such an adventure, just to walk upstairs and find a spot that maybe you haven’t seen before. … Trying to piece the whole thing together, it’s like a mental puzzle” Colrain resident Peggy Davis said. She and her family stayed overnight in the nooks when her husband performed in the Winter Solstice celebrations. For her, seeing the Roundhouse bare felt bittersweet.

Although Tippens looks forward to living closer to her son and his family in Connecticut, she said saying goodbye to the Roundhouse after 30 years is not easy.

“I’ve been here for so long, I have all these friends and relationships,” Tippens said.

Despite the closing date being March 12, Tippens will be moving out by the end of the month. During that time, she plans to learn more about the new owner’s intentions for the Roundhouse in the future.

“The new owner apparently is looking forward to having some events here,” Tippens wrote in an email ahead of Sunday’s event.

Since the Roundhouse’s opening in February 1994, Watson said his thoughts often circle back to this project.

“I’ve built a lot of houses, but this is the culmination of everything to me in a philosophical way,” he explained. “It feels like it was a gift that could’ve only happened this one time and it did. Bekki, she’s wild, adventuresome, and she had this big vision.”

Watson described walking the Roundhouse’s empty rooms again as “a full-circle moment,” and he and Tippens laughed together as those words sunk in.