BRATTLEBORO—In November of 2010, I sat in the second floor office of Jonathan Chase, owner of the Brooks House, in a room crowded with the history of one of Brattleboro’s most prominent commercial buildings.
Forty years earlier, his father, Norman, saved the building from the wrecking ball and converted a defunct hotel into a mixed-use retail and residential building, with 60 apartments.
But in the fall of 2010, the Brooks House was a little frayed at the edges. Several retail spaces were unrented, some of them for years. The apartments, mostly studios and one-bedroom units, showed their age. The building was solid, but it definitely was a 19th century building facing 21st century uncertainty.
That day, Chase spoke of plans to try and turn the Brooks House into an arts center in an effort to try and catch the wave of the creative economy.
Seven months later, those dreams went up in smoke. Seven months later, I was standing on Main Street at midnight with hundreds of fire fighters, bystanders, and displaced tenants, watching the Brooks House be gutted by flame.
No one died and no serious injuries were reported. But 60 residents were left homeless, several businesses were displaced, and the largest building on Main Street was severely damaged.
The Dumpsters arrived and the building was gutted to the walls. The smell of mold and mildew surrounded the block. Within a couple months of the fire, it was eventually boarded up and weatherized, waiting for its next incarnation.
The Brooks House fire hit all of us at The Commons hard. Our office is directly across the street, in the Hooker-Dunham Building, and for more than two years after the 2011 fire, we had to walk past the gutted shell of the Brooks House every day. Late at night, when I left the office, it seemed like a dark, brooding, boarded-up brick hulk, devoid of life.
For a time, Chase had a temporary office across the hall from ours at the Hooker-Dunham. He took me and our senior reporter, Olga Peters, on a tour of the gutted Brooks House in the summer of 2011 and spoke of his plans for the building.
Within hours of the fire, Chase said he was determined to rebuild the Brooks House, but it was clear that the money wasn’t there. Who was willing to sink millions into a 140-year-old building?
As it turned out, Bob Stevens and Craig Miskovich were willing. I was in the room at Downs Rachlin Martin’s Brattleboro offices in April 2012 when Stevens and Miskovich announced the formation of Mesabi LLC and that they would buy the Brooks House from Chase and secure the funding to restore it to its former glory.
Joining them were Drew and Peter Richards, and their cousin, Ben Taggard. I wrote about them when they were student-athletes at Brattleboro Union High School during my first tour of duty as a sports reporter at the Reformer. Now they are vice presidents and principals at The Richards Group, the largest insurance agency in Southern Vermont. They represented the new generation of Brattleboro stepping up into a position of leadership.
It seemed almost impossible for the five to pull it off: cobbling together a hodgepodge of funding sources from local, state, and federal governments, from banks large and small, from private investors, and from themselves.
But within a year they’d secured the funding and got Gov. Peter Shumlin to join them as they swung sledgehammers to celebrate the groundbreaking for the Brooks House project. Shumlin helped to steer the Brooks House’s anchor tenants — the Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College — into the historic building.
Scaffolding sprung up and surrounded the exterior of the Brooks House in the summer of 2013. Construction workers swarmed inside and outside the building. Stevens and Miskovich promised the building would be ready for the colleges to move in by August 2014.
It didn’t seem possible. When I toured the building again in February of this year it was still mostly a shell. Five months later, when I visited the building again, the progress was stunning. The empty shell was almost filled. There were walls where there had been only studs. Carpeting and tile covered what had been bare plywood. Something new was changed inside and outside the building every day.
This week, the construction is almost complete. And now, when I leave the Hooker-Dunham in the evening, I look across the street and see lights in the windows. I see life and activity where just a year before there was darkness and plywood.
The Brooks House is back, and better and more beautiful than it has been in decades. An old friend has returned to the downtown, and not a moment too soon.