Preservationists urge another review for YMCA building

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BELLOWS FALLS — The Vermont state historic preservation officer is reaching out to other historic preservation experts to see if something can be done to save the historic but dilapidated YMCA building in Bellows Falls.

Laura Trieschmann said Tuesday she had contacted people with expertise in historic preservation in Vermont, both individuals and organizations, after learning that the village of Bellows Falls said it was on the verge of ordering the demolition of the 1835 structure, which is the oldest remaining church building in Bellows Falls.

The building start its life as a Methodist Church, but closed in 1934 after close to 100 years as a church, and was sold to Fall Mountain Grange in 1942. The YMCA bought the building in 1971, and three years ago the Meeting Waters YMCA sold its former home to a local man, Christopher Glennon, for $1, who has been trying to restore the building.

Trieschmann said she had been contacted by a Windham County man who asked if the building could be saved, rather than demolished.

She said her first recommendation to the village would be to have an assessment or evaluation done of the building by an engineer who has experience with historic preservation, rather than just a structural engineer.

"They need to have a historic preservationist to evaluate the structural integrity," she said. "You need both," she said.

"The building has a great deal of community history," she said.

"I've reached out to individuals, who have done a great deal of historic preservation work, to try and get some ideas and some feedback and opportunities to see if the building can be saved," she said.

"I don't want to overstep. I'm willing to bring partners together to see what can be done," she said.

"The responses I have gotten all suggest a qualified expert in historic buildings/timber frame construction should review the structure," she said.

"The Preservation Trust of Vermont staff suggested a conditions assessment be prepared. These types of evaluations, along with the engineering report, should always be done when demolition is proposed because of deterioration and structural integrity," she said.

"Unfortunately, it is not listed in the state of National Registers of Historic Places," she said, noting that it had been altered from its original church design and plan to be used as a YMCA.

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According to the structural engineer's assessment, the building is in dire need of structural repair. The village has erected barriers on its south side, to keep area schoolchildren safe from falling roof slate. An updated review, released last week, recommended demolition.

According to a 2004 historic preservation survey done of the building, the building was described as Gothic Revival, and had been built in 1835, with additions or renovations in 1881, 1900 and 1911.

The building had been built as a one story Methodist Church in 1835, and then raised to two stories in 1881, with the front tower and first story pavilion added in 1911, and the second story of the pavilion in 1911.

In 2004, it was listed as in fair condition, and was of post and beam construction with clapboard siding and a slate roof. The survey said the building had corner pilasters, a recessed porch, a Colonial Revival porch, and stained glass windows.

She said it was too soon for her to have received a response to her appeal.

Trieschmann said she had reached out to the Preservation Trust of Vermont to see if there was something they could do.

She said the Preservation Trust has grant money for just such an evaluation of the building, unlike the state Division for Historic Preservation.

She said it would be easier to find funding for the building if it was owned by the town or village or a non-profit organization.

"The Preservation Trust does give out grants," she said.

She noted that Rockingham and Bellows Falls have what's called a "certified local government," which in essence is a local historic preservation organization. She said the Rockingham CLG could apply for grants on behalf of the building.

She said that church buildings and former church buildings all over the state are challenged by regular, annual upkeep. "Our New England weather is very harsh." she said. "I think when it comes to churches there are congregations that are struggling, they are torn between serving the building and serving the congregation," she said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.

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