ATHENS—The Town Office, located in one of three buildings that constitute the town center, used to be the schoolhouse. Behind the listers’ desk, two large and rare slate blackboards still hang on the wall as vestiges of the building’s previous use.
No one seems to know exactly the age of the building, which is in serious disrepair.
But photographs from the early 1800s show schoolchildren in front of a neat, white-clapboarded building with freshly painted shutters. Sandi Capponcelli, a member of the Board of Listers who also maintains an Athens, Vt. page on Facebook, thinks the building was last used as a one-room schoolhouse in the 1970s.
At an Oct. 25 Special Town Meeting, by a vote of 25-21, voters rejected an article to fund construction of a new town office.
In the wake of that vote, a group of residents headed by Capponcelli asked the Selectboard on Nov. 15 to recognize a new group, the Town Office Volunteers, to help in the repair, upgrading, and maintenance of the Athens Town Office.
Knowing the value of this history and its crucial location as one of three buildings constituting a “town center” — along with the Athens Elementary School and the Community Christian Church — Capponcelli said she felt compelled to find a way to save the building before repairs got beyond salvageability.
The board recognized the group — a procedure that ensures that volunteers are covered by the town’s liability insurance — and then went on to discuss further possible sources of funding for various repairs and renovations, first addressing the building’s leaking roof.
Later in the meeting, the board passed a motion to contact Jones Brothers Roofing of Bellows Falls to see if the firm is interested in repairing the roof and to advertise an invitation to bid for drywall work for the ceiling.
“I think the Selectboard was surprised by how many volunteers showed up to show their support,” Capponcelli said of the roomful of people who came.
Capponcelli said a group of nine volunteers has already thoroughly cleaned the main room of the building and bathroom, so the dusty, musty smell of an old building is gone.
But she wants make sure that the rich legacy of the building remains intact.
“There is so much history here,” Capponcelli said as she lifted a large paper map off the wall, revealing an original pen-and-ink map of the town, rendered on sheepskin.
It is “archivally mounted but it needs to be covered to keep it from direct sunlight,” as this wall is the only one big enough for the two seminal pieces of town history, she said.
Beside it, under another large covering, hangs the original handwritten town charter.
“These are important town documents we can’t even display properly,” Capponcelli said.
Other historic photographs and handwritten documents are somewhat haphazardly mounted on an opposite wall hidden behind some flags.
“We need to be able to display these properly in a way that they are safe,” Capponcelli said. “We should be proud of these.”
Right now, the town has neither a way to keep these documents safe, nor a way to display them properly.
The “safe room” where the town records and safe are kept is an add-on shed of sorts. Leakage during the winter is common when the snow gets backed up under the roofline and melts down between where the two structures overlap.
Capponcelli said that if anyone wants access to town records stored in the back room, “we have to go in and get those for them” no matter who it is, “because it’s not safe to go in there.”
In April, Selectboard Chair Michael Bates filed a complaint to the Vermont Fire and Safety Board, citing structural issues with the floor, the ceiling, and “foundations, columns, and beams,” as well as a violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Bates told The Commons he was prompted to do so because “the town refused to fund a bigger building,” and “to bring it up to code.”
Violations, he said, are numerous and include mold in the furnace room, “which makes it difficult to breathe during meetings” with forced air ducts, and an unsafe and unsanitary bathroom.
Lead paint is flaking off the building into a parking lot shared with the church next door, he said.
“It’s not built to current standards,” he said.
The Fire and Safety Board responded in November with notes and violations, finding that “the ceiling tiles must be removed or covered with a material having an acceptable interior flame spread rating, such as gypsum board.”
The town has already complied with the mandate, as well as an additional order to install the building’s fire extinguisher.
Capponcelli said that the ceiling had been painted with a fire retardant paint, but even since then, stains around the chimney have appeared from the leaking roof.
Confirming Bates’s assertion, the Fire and Safety Board also noted that the building is not universally accessible.
But making the building ADA compliant could require that the town enlarge a door with a ramp access to the south side of the building from the existing parking lot, where now only large windows face south.
“The footprint of this property is tiny and isn’t much larger than the building,” Capponcelli said, so this issue will take some thought and planning.
Capponcelli’s husband, Donald, is one of the many residents who stepped up to volunteer his services, as he is a certified contractor who is familiar with codes and permit practices.
“We’re extremely lucky to have him on board,” she said, adding that he knows how to negotiate the tricky terrain between dreaming, planning and actually making a renovation possible.
At the Nov. 15 Selectboard meeting, Bates emphasized that “any change to a public building has to go through the [Vermont Department of Labor and Industry], and once they get involved, compliance with state health and safety regulations and building codes becomes mandatory.”
“You have to go through all the steps” without skipping any, he warned.
An unidentified volunteer at the meeting replied, “At the last meeting, you invited anyone with ideas to come down” and put them before the board.
“We’re here and willing to do whatever it takes,” the volunteer said.
To which Bates later added he will “back them as long as they go through the proper legal channels, and [adhere] to state regulations.”
And he cautioned that any grants discussed at the meeting would require a detailed plan of exact changes and their costs.
Personally, Bates said, he does not see the historical value that may be the backbone of some of the grants.
“It’s not on the National Registry [of Historic Places],” he said.
After the preliminary volunteer cleaning blitz, Capponcelli posted on the Athens, Vt. Facebook page: “To paraphrase Margaret Mead: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change a town. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” She is now calling for a meeting to discuss a “five-to-10-year plan” for the building.
A potluck “to get volunteers together to get some ideas written down” is tentatively planned for Thursday, Dec. 13, she said.
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