Rebuilding Brattleboro's Brooks House

Scaffolding is scene around part of the building, on the roof of the Brook House. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)

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BRATTLEBORO -- When you are working on a $23 million project that covers about 80,000 square feet you mark your milestones by the ton.

And this week the ongoing rehabilitation of the Brooks House took a big leap forward with the arrival of more than 40 tons of steel which were quickly erected throughout the historic 142-year-old building.

The steel girders went inside the Brooks House to stabilize and strengthen the structure, and it was also used to build a new second story on the rear part of the Brooks House which extends into Harmony Parking Lot.

That extension will ultimately be the new home of Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College when the state schools move in, hopefully in time for the start of classes in September 2014.

"We're through the hard part now," said Bob Stevens, one of the five members of Mesabi LLC, the investment group that has taken on the project to rebuild the fire damaged building. "We're keeping the historic fabric and architecture, but when we are done this building is going to be like new."

SLIDESHOW: Take a look at the work happening at the Brooks House, here.

A five alarm fire ripped through the Brooks House on April 17, 2011, severely damaging the building.

About a year later the former owner announced that he would not be able to come up with the funding to rebuild and the Mesabi investment team came together to try to raise the money to save the historic building.

It took another year to put the complicated financing package together, and since July 17, when Gov. Peter Shumlin helped to ceremoniously knock down a wall during the ground breaking, Stevens says crews have been on site moving the project forward.

The massive steel girders were trucked in earlier this week and they were quickly put into place throughout the building, as well as used to build the new second story for the college.

Over the past few months crews have been busy inside ripping out the interior and preparing the building's structure for the new plumbing, electrical and heat and air conditioning infrastructure which will be installed in the coming months, Stevens said.

He said with the steel in place, people are going to see big changes at the Brooks House.

The scaffolding along High Street will come down in the next few weeks, revealing the intricate brick, brass and wood work that has been taken on over the past few months.

The new college extension will be framed and will quickly become a presence in the Harmony Lot and in the coming months scaffolding will be removed along Main Street.

Since work started Stevens said there have been between 30 and 60 people working on the project every day.

Those numbers, he said, will more than double as plumbers, carpenters, electricians and other specialists begin putting the inside of the Brooks House back together.

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Stevens said the work to date has been complicated and challenging, as demolition crews uncovered surprises on an almost daily basis as walls were torn down, footings were dug for the steel girders and reconstruction began on the fire damaged portion of the building.

He said engineers from his firm, Stevens & Associates, along with the architects, planners and builders of Bread Loaf, the construction firm that is leading the project, are in constant contact, figuring out the countless puzzles and challenges that crop up when you are working on a structure that was built in 1871.

As workers have been tearing into the building they have discovered that the flooring has been changed over the years, presenting challenges for meeting American with Disabilities Act requirements.

Up on the third floor a worker was tearing down a wall and found that someone, at some point in time, put in a new closet right under the iconic Hotel Brooks tower, severely compromising the tower's stability.

"There are a lot of decisions to be made and a lot of problems to solve," Stevens said. "Some of the problems have no easy solutions. It feels like I have a long to-do list, and I am never done with it."

Walking across the scaffolding Thursday, Stevens showed off some of the craft work that has been completed along the exterior.

New brass overhangs were installed over the windows.

The mortar in the brick walls was reapplied and all of the wood has been repaired and repainted.

As the scaffolding comes down and the interior is finished Stevens said the building will regain its prominence along Brattleboro's Main Street.

Work is mostly on schedule, he said, and the first tenants and businesses should be able to move in August 2014.

"We're not giving up on that date. Some things have come up that have not helped, but you expect that," said Stevens. "This is a big project and we're getting closer every day."

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