Finding the soul of the Brooks House


Photo Gallery | Brooks House Construction Update - July 31, 2014

BRATTLEBORO -- Priscilla Cotton, who was hired to oversee the interior design of the Brooks House, keeps an old black-and-white post card taped to the inside of the folder she is using during the rehabilitation of the historic building.

The folder is filled with architectural drawings, photographs, paint and carpet samples and notes, and the black-and-white photo shows the Brooks House during a celebration in Brattleboro during the late 1800s. In the photo the balconies, which have been gone for a long time, are filled with well-dressed men and women and Main Street is teeming with horse-drawn buggies and crowds. Bunting hangs from the balcony railings, which are built with intricate steel, and every detail of the majestic building is elegant and refined.

"This is my inspiration," Cotton said as she looks down at the photo. "This is the feeling that I am trying to bring back. There is no other building like this in Brattleboro, that's for sure."

Cotton was hired in September to help the co-owners of the Brooks House create a "hip and modern" feeling inside of the structure while respecting the history of the building

And as the commercial and residential tenants prepare to move in, and work wraps up on the fire-damaged property, Cotton said she is looking forward to opening the Brooks House back up to the public.

"When I work with a client, what I hope to do is help them understand their vision of a space and then help them figure out how to get there, Cotton said. "What we are trying to do here is bring this amazing building back to life."

A five-alarm fire ripped through the top floors of the Brooks House on April 17, 2011, causing extensive damage to the structure.

One year later a group of five local investors came together to purchase the building from former owner Jonathan Chase, and construction on the $22-million project is expected to be completed in the next few months.

Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College are moving in next week and classes are scheduled to begin in the Brooks House in early September.

While hundreds of construction workers have been on site for the past few months bringing the Brooks House back to life, it is Cotton's work that will be most visible. From the paint in the atrium and tiles in the public bathrooms to the cabinets and carpeting in the apartments, Cotton has been working with co-owner Bob Stevens and the other owners to make people feel that when they walk into the Brooks House they are entering someplace special.

"We've been trying to find the soul of the building," she said. "The Brooks House was built to be restful and exciting and comforting and it is our job to bring it back to life. I am honored to be able to be a part of this."

Stevens and Cotton both say their collaboration over the past year has been productive and creative. Stevens, a civil and structural engineer, understands everything that is going on behind the walls and under the floors of the Brooks House while it is Cotton's job to help bring color and form to those surfaces.

"This is the (most fun) part of the project," Stevens said during a tour of the building. "Priscilla has been great to work with every decision we make is a collaboration."

Cotton is about 95 percent done with her work. Most of the wood stain, carpeting, paint colors and tiles, have been selected.

Over the past few months work crews have been pulling double shifts, and while there were major delays and surprises during the first few months, work is scheduled to finish up pretty close to the original opening date.

The colleges will begin classes next month, the first commercial tenant hopes to open in late August and the residential tenants expect to move into their apartments in September.

Stevens said he expects work at the Brooks House to be done by Oct. 1.

There are two columns that tower over the new atrium in the Brooks House right inside the entrance that leads from the Harmony Parking Lot. The columns are part of the original building and used to stand over the lobby when it was a bustling hotel in the heart of a busy Vermont river and railroad town. The columns were partially obscured before the fire. One of them stood at the head of the bar in Adagio's. Now they anchor the new lobby and in a way support the history of the building while standing over its new life as a retail center, college and apartment complex.

One of the last decisions Cotton and Stevens have to make is what color to use on the columns.

"These columns are one of the only existing architectural pieces that are left, and it is the last detail Bob and I are trying to figure out," Cotton said. "We've spent a lot of time standing there and talking about it. I think it should be white because columns are supposed to be white, but Bob thinks they should be gray."

Thumbing through her folder, Cotton takes another look at that black-and-white photo of the Brooks House.

"This is where it started and we have to be respectful of that. These columns are a reminder that this was someone's dream, and they anchors us to that dream," she said. "But it's Bob's vision now. If he thinks it will be gray, it will probably be gray."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. Follow him on Twitter @HowardReformer.


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