A Brief History of VHC

Written by member Deborah Schifter

Centuries ago, the Pocumtuc people, inhabitants of the valley of the Kwinitekw River, named the area where we now live “Norwottuck”, or “Nonotuck”, meaning “the midst of the river.”  Europeans began to arrive in the mid-1600s and named the community Northampton.

In 1856, the Northampton Lunatic Hospital, later known as the Northampton State Hospital, was built, and it opened in 1858. At the beginning, the hospital was based on progressive principles for its time. The site was chosen for its beautiful views with the belief that the beauty of nature would be soothing for troubled spirits. An early superintendent cultivated a strong work therapy program with agricultural fields and greenhouses. Whereas the hospital was originally designed for 250 patients, over many decades the hospital expanded to more buildings with more patients, and conditions declined. Because of the inadequate, often abusive, patient care at all of the Massachusetts state hospitals, in the 1980s, the state decided to close them. In 1993, the last patients of the Northampton State Hospital were reassigned, and the hospital was officially closed.

With the demolition of the hospital, Northampton now had 126 acres at its disposal. The city’s vision was to combine commercial, light industrial, and residential uses with open space to support regional job creation, housing, business development, and recreation. The property was developed in two phases, and people started moving into Phase 1 residences in 2010. In 2013, the planners were ready to receive bids on the development of Phase 2.

The contract went to Carter Scott, a developer with a strong commitment to energy efficient buildings, who wanted to include a cohousing community in his plan. He partnered with Mary Kraus, an architect and a founding member of Cherry Hill Cohousing in Amherst, to help him get started with a group of potential members. By the summer of 2014, it was clear there was substantial interest. Mary helped us get started by facilitating meetings, initiating the writing of a vision statement, and leading discussions about what we wanted to see in our homes and common house. Once we started meeting on our own, we set up a committee to oversee the membership process and discussed a governance policy that wouldn’t allow obstructionist individuals to shut down the works.

Two years into the project, in the summer of 2016, we learned that the developer was in bankruptcy and was forced to withdraw from the project. Seven determined members continued to meet, working hard to keep the project alive. 

In the spring of 2017, the core group met with Shaul Perry of Sunwood Builders who took over the building and management process of Village Hill Cohousing. With the project underway again, some of the veteran members came back and new members came on board. The first six houses were ready for occupancy in the fall of 2019. For the next two years, six intrepid households lived in a construction zone, with new members joining as their houses were completed, but with no common house. Because of Covid, residents would set up meeting times to gather outside, sometimes to conduct business, but often just to chat or celebrate. Zoom meetings were held to bring together residents, members who hadn’t yet moved, and those who were interested to learn more about VHC with the possibility of moving in.

In December of 2021, the last of twenty-eight units closed, and Village Hill Cohousing took over community management. Between the spring and summer of 2022, our Common House was finished and opened, and we started making use of our shared space. Fall 2022 started seeing us have community meals, and summer 2023 marked our first season with a shared community garden.