Alnoba Is a Manor on a Mission
By Tom Long / Fiddlehead Contributing Editor
This is the first profile in a new feature called Attainable Sustainable, highlighting local businesses and their commitment to their employees, customers, the community and the future of the planet.
Alnoba was built on a hill in Kensington with a nod to the past and an eye toward the future.
The gathering place was constructed with vintage and modern materials around a frame of hand-hewn timbers from a barn built in 1760. It has a great hall worthy of a medieval castle with a vaulted ceiling framed by barn timbers and wooden flooring reclaimed from a Maine mill.
The fireplace, which dominates the hall, is made of granite blocks from local quarries. Floor-to-ceiling windows in various meeting rooms look out on birch trees waving in the wind. A statue of Buddha stands in a room devoted to meditation and yoga. A flat water element in front creates a reflective surface and drops off to re-create the music of a mountain brook.
In short, it’s a building right out of the pages of Architectural Digest, but it’s not just a showplace. It’s a manor on a mission – in more ways than one.
Built and funded by the Lewis Family Foundation, Alnoba was not constructed just to be pretty and environmentally friendly, it’s also the centerpiece of 400 acres of forest and field meant to be a place where “inspiration meets action.”
“This is the first building of its kind in the Northeast to meet the passive house standard,” said Jan Byrnes, a representative of the Lewis Family Foundation.
According to the organization’s brochure, alnoba (pronounced all-noum-bah) is Abenaki for “becoming human” and is intended to represent the idea that we are “rooted in the consciousness of our birthplace” and are continually transforming from the point of birth.
“The ultimate goal is to become a gathering place for the community,” said Byrnes, “and create leaders in conservation, sustainability, wellness and the arts.”
The gathering place is a portrait in sustainability. Eight wells, 400-feet-deep, provide geothermal heat. All windows are triple-paned and imported from Germany. Solar panels provide electricity. Because the passive house is air-tight, air must be pumped in to allow the fireplace to work effectively.
The foundation was created by Alan Lewis and his wife, Harriet. The duo are the owners of Grand Circle Corp., an international travel company. Both are Boston natives.
Before he was seven, Alan moved 14 times to “tough neighborhoods” in the city, according to the company bio. The property in Kensington was an escape for the young boy, the bio explains. “On weekends, his parents would put him on the bus and send him to visit his grandmother, who lived in Kensington, and he fell in love with the place.”
Following their business success, the Lewises bought the Kensington property and created the foundation to build “strong leaders, stronger communities.”
The property has hiking trails and ropes and aerial adventure courses.
A sculpture park curated by Harriet contains large scale works in a pasture adjacent to the meeting house. Works include a metal assemblage buffalo by John Lopez, sculptures made of recycled lobster traps and carved totems.
A visitor can find inspiration around every corner. On the trail from the parking lot to the great house is a bench inscribed with a quote from Elie Wiesel: “One person of integrity can make a difference.”
Over the fireplace in the great hall hangs a fiber art piece with a quote attributed to James Baldwin: “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone ever said about it.”
A massive fire pit in an adjacent pasture is surrounded by stone blocks that were once part of the Deer Island Chain Bridge that crosses the Merrimack River from Amesbury to Newburyport and presumably would have been on the bus route young Alan Lewis traveled from Boston to Kensington.
There is a spring-fed water station where visitors may fill their containers. “We ask our visitors to bring their own bottles because plastic is not environmentally sound,” said Byrnes.
Visitors are encouraged to spend time in the fresh air. “We like to have people enjoy the outdoors, not just sit inside at a meeting,” Byrnes said. “We encourage them to go outside for lunch even in the winter. If you’re attending a meeting with your boss, the cold can be a great equalizer.”
Around the corner and down the road is The Farm at Eastman Corner, a marketplace for produce and artisanal foods at the intersection of routes 107 and 150 that is open to the public and funded by the Lewis Foundation.
Until now, Alnoba has not been open to the public. It has been used by nonprofit groups like Boys & Girls Clubs of America and other organizations by invitation only.
“We have tents and sleeping bags for 180 kids,” said Byrnes.
But that is beginning to change. They recently hosted a wedding, and the facilities may now be reserved by groups and corporations for outdoor events, meetings, team building, training and retreats.
The first event open to the public at large will be a lecture on Sept. 20 by John Lopez, the artist whose larger-than-life-size steampunk buffalo and horse stand at Alnoba and The Farm at Eastman Corner respectively.