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This building on 11 Arch St. used to be an electrical substation until the 1990s. It will soon be the home for expanded programming at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.

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From ‘eyesore’ to arts space

Brattleboro Museum & Art Center seeks to expand with purchase, restoration of second property

BRATTLEBORO—The building at 11 Arch St. waits, unused, fading into the background like a hermit long forgotten by its lived-in neighbors. Its windows, blinded by the boards covering them, further the building’s air of dormancy.

No one has used the building, which has served as a studio space, electric substation, machine shop, and even a bowling alley, in at least a decade.

A new chapter in the building’s life has begun, with the sale of 11 Arch St. last week to Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC) for $1, said BMAC Executive Director Danny Lichtenfeld.

That price is all the museum could afford, given the investment BMAC will make to bring the building into productive use.

“Brattleboro has this super cool building,” Lichtenfeld said. “Right now, it’s nothing but an eyesore.”

With care, attention, and commitment, he continued, 11 Arch Street can become a dynamic, attractive, fun, and useful part of downtown that benefits everyone.

“We’re really at an early stage of considering the possibilities,” Lichtenfeld said.

By early, he means “super preliminary” and that museum staff haven’t chosen a use — yet.

BMAC decided to jump at purchasing the building now and then figure out how to use it.

“It was worth doing that,” he said.

When asked what the early ideas include, Lichtenfeld’s voice takes on a tone of excitement.

“This would be an expansion,” he said. The museum has no intention to move from its current location at 10 Vernon St.

The 11 Arch St. site will probably become, in some way, additional arts space and programing space, he said.

The museum’s program capabilities are limited in the gallery, Lichtenfeld continued. (Hosting, say, a glass-blowing workshop near a wall of paintings? Not the best idea.)

The new building could become space for events, for lectures, for an artist-in-residence program, for educational workshops, for a summer arts camp, or for showing films, Lichtenfeld said.

“All those details are well down the road,” he said.

A cool building

Lichtenfeld said he had stopped noticing the estimated 160-year-old structure despite seeing it from his office every day.

He said that changed when a visiting artist, John Gibson, brought the building back into his field of vision.

According to Lichtenfeld, as the two men ate lunch at the Whetstone Station restaurant and brewery two years ago, Gibson noticed 11 Arch Street, which sits with half its foundation in the Whetstone Brook and half on bedrock.

“Wow, what a cool building,” Lichtenfeld remembers Gibson saying.

The conversation spurred Lichtenfeld to see the 19th-century “abandoned eyesore” with fresh eyes and compelled him to discover who owned the structure.

A long industrial history

Documentation compiled for the environmental assessment lists a map from 1856 that denotes 11 Arch Street as “Hines Newman & Co. Machine Shop & Steam Mill.”

A photograph from 1869 depicts flood damage to the building that exposed two wooden water wheels in the basement.

In a photo from 1880, 11 Arch is still marked as a “machine shop,” with the addition of a blacksmith’s shop on the upstream side of the building.

By 1885, a grist mill was added to the structure. Documents in the assessment say that at this time the mill was using water, steam, coal, and gas as power sources.

The Brattleboro Gas Light Co. purchased the building in 1892, which marks the start of electric generation — for more than powering a machine shop — at the property. A machine shop remained onsite.

In 1901, the building was occupied by the electric company, a machine shop owned by L.H. Stillman, and a “knitting” facility operated by the Brattleboro Hosiery Co.

A “bowling and pool” hall were part of 11 Arch Street by 1912.

From the early 1900s until the 1990s, the building served mostly as an electrical substation.

Twin State Gas & Electric Co., of New Hampshire, acquired the building around 1912. This company later merged with Central Vermont Public Service in 1943. A portion of the building was demolished in the 1930s, creating a vacant lot that has become an informal parking lot.

Central Vermont Public Service used the site for electrical generation until the early 1990s, according to documents related to the site’s environmental assessments.

The company leased the property to tenants for a few years.

According to Lichtenfeld, the late architect Leo Berman renovated the building around 2002. It housed an apartment and some retail and art studio spaces, but, according to one area walking tour description, was “then abandoned due to industrial toxins.”

More than a year of investigating the potential

The building had stood vacant for approximately a decade when Green Mountain Power acquired it in its merger with Central Vermont Public Service Corporation a few years ago, Lichtenfeld said.

GMP had no use for 11 Arch St. and was “thrilled” a nonprofit showed an interest in purchasing the property, he said.

The BMAC’s board of trustees agreed the building had potential.

BMAC launched a year-and-a-half long investigation into the property. This effort included digging into the site’s potential brownfields issues and pinpointing its environmental contamination.

All this work culminated with the sale of the property — valued at $224,080, according to the 2015 town grand list — for $1, a token price that Lichtenfeld attributed to the required environmental cleanup.

In his opinion, Lichtenfeld thinks GMP recognized that new owners would need to pay for clean up before any renovations. That’s a big commitment.

“It’s great they [GMP] were willing to do that deal for $1,” he said.

What an industry leaves behind

The building once housed industrial businesses that left behind environmental contamination.

A recent report by LE Environmental LLC of Waterbury confirmed the expected sort of contamination in the soils, paint, and in the building, including petroleum, lead, polychlorinated biphenyl compounds (PCBs), and arsenic.

To mitigate two potential risks — flooding and toxic gases accumulating from soils in the basement — Lichtenfeld said a contractor will install a membrane and ventilation under the main floor. Workers will then fill the basement with fresh soil.

The structure has withstood all the major floods to hit Brattleboro over the past 150 years, from a flash flood in 1869 to Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, Lichtenfeld said.

“We don’t think it’s a disaster waiting to happen,” he said.

For those who consider themselves brownfields wonks, those assessments include phase 1 (historical research) and phase 2 (testing) assessments and a corrective action plan (CAP).

Lichtenfeld said that contamination exists but is not as bad as some other former industrial sites in downtown Brattleboro. The property has undergone multiple environmental assessments, and GMP paid for some environmental cleanup in 2010.

Previous building occupants and owners have cleared up some of the contamination history left behind, he said. Some toxins, however, have migrated to the site because it sits on a downward slope to the river.

Chemicals used in dry cleaning, for example, were found in the soil even though 11 Arch St. isn’t known to have accommodated a dry cleaning business.

The Windham Regional Commission’s brownfields program provided approximately $27,000 toward the environmental assessments and part of the corrective action plan.

LE Environmental completed the CAP on the property. This plan identifies contamination found in the site’s soil, building materials like paint, groundwater, or indoor air. The firm also recommended a $252,700 remediation plan.

The museum’s next step is applying to the federal Environmental Protection Agency for funding to remove the contamination per recommendations in the CAP. The EPA will cover 80 percent of project costs, Lichtenfeld said. The museum will apply to other programs to cover remaining costs.

If all goes well, he said, this time next year the cleanup work will be done.

The museum will then launch a fundraising campaign to redevelop the buildings.

Lichtenfeld notes that the museum investigated 11 Arch Street for almost two years to determine if the property was worth buying.

He praised Windham Regional Commission and its associate director, Susan McMahon. The WRC has provided some funding and technical assistance.

Lichtenfeld also thanked Stevens & Associates for the engineering firm’s early investigation of the property. The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB), Preservation Trust of Vermont, and GMP helped fund a portion of the environmental assessments and CAP.

“We’re very grateful to all of them getting us to this point,” Lichtenfeld said.

Program helps fund cleanup

Completing the CAP’s to-do list releases the property owner from liability related to environmental toxins, said McMahon.

To date, Windham Regional has 45 total sites across its 27-town region in its brownfields program, including 24 Brattleboro sites.

Since 2000, when the program started, the program has put $1.25 million toward projects in Brattleboro, McMahon said.

McMahon added that, to date, the program has funded two cleanup projects through a combination of loans and grants totaling $235,000.

Once they’ve completed the environmental assessments and have the CAP in hand, nonprofits like BMAC can apply directly to the federal Environmental Protection Agency for cleanup funding, she said.

The WRC also manages a revolving loan fund to help with such cleanup needs, she added.

Lichtenfeld remains optimistic.

“It’ll be a long road ahead,” he said. “But we’re feeling like it’s a really incredible opportunity.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #337 (Wednesday, December 23, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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