BELLOWS FALLS—The Meeting Waters YMCA faced a difficult choice last year: what to do about its building, a former Methodist meetinghouse whose roots in the community were planted in 1835.
For years, the organization had been looking for a way to shed its longtime headquarters at 66 Atkinson St., which was no longer essential to its mission and was prohibitively expensive to heat and maintain.
In the end, the YMCA donated the former Methodist church in January to a newly formed group organized to preserve the structure, whose grassroots community action could well save the building.
In 2014, the cost to heat the structure — $35,000 — was more than the YMCA’s board of directors was willing to spend.
The organization also faced the prospect of urgent repairs to its roof and furnace.
The YMCA considered two alternatives: renovating the building or demolishing it — and both estimates came in at $100,000, more than what director Steven Fortier said the YMCA could invest.
The building developed a hole in the roof where the cedar shakes split, letting water in. Water was also seeping into the basement from a badly drained parking lot.
So Meeting Waters decided to move its Y-ASPIRE (After-School Program for Inspiration, Recreation and Education) program into the Rockingham Central Elementary School, and to move the administrative offices to downtown Bellows Falls, letting go of the building on Atkinson Street that the organization had occupied since 1971.
It was in that year that Meeting Waters YMCA (then known as the Fall Mountain YMCA, as it would be until 1987) purchased the former church — then the headquarters of the Fall Mountain Grange — to start the Rockingham Y Community and Youth Center. In the years following, the Bellows Falls Area Senior Center shared the building as well.
With the Y’s purchase of Childspace Child Care Center in 1989, the child-care center moved into the building and the senior center moved to its current location on Tuttle Street. When the child-care center operations ceased in 2000, the Bellows Falls Y-ASPIRE program moved from the Central School into the Atkinson Street facility.
But questions remained.
What would become of the existing building?
Would it follow the life of so many of the historic homes and crumbling mill buildings in the village and fall into such decay and disrepair that it would become a danger to the public and have to be demolished?
Or would it see new life and survive — perhaps even thrive — to provide new community services?
Fortier said that following the decision of his board to divest itself of the building last fall, he started approaching people he thought might be interested, beginning with those working in municipal government.
He approached Francis “Dutch” Walsh, who works in two capacities: as the development director of the town of Rockingham and the executive director of the nonprofit Bellows Falls Area Development Corporation (BFADC).
Walsh said the project would be a nonstarter: the town did not want or need the building.
But he also told Fortier that he knew people who might be interested, and he offered to facilitate any transfers by purchasing it temporarily through Island Holdings, a subsidiary of the BFADC.
Slowly, over the next few months and into the new year of 2015, a bit of old-fashioned community networking took place, and a chance for a new life and function in the community for the 1835 building began to take root.
It seems natural to Michael Bruno — owner of the Windham Antique Center in the former Sam’s building on the Square — that Walsh would have brought the dilemma to him, considering his interests, his background, and his ongoing restoration efforts in downtown buildings he owns.
Bruno started with Tiffany & Co. as a gemologist and diamond auditor; a specialist in Victorian-era jewelry, he quickly worked his way to assistant manager of the East Hampton, N.Y., branch of the luxury jewelry store. When he first came to town, he renovated and opened a small antique jewelry shop on the south side of the Square.
The Sam’s building needed extensive renovation to bring the building up to code. After two years of work, he opened his doors in 2012.
Now the operator of a successful business that attracts out-of-staters to the region, Bruno is a self-styled “history nerd” who counts historic architecture among his passions.
“I just love how it tells the history of a place,” he said.
When speaking of the rich presence of historic architecture that still stands in and around the village, including the residential area on the plateau above the Square, Bruno’s voice softened, his eyes lit up, and a smile played on his face.
“It’s important to know the history of a place, and preserve as much as possible,” he said.
The Square is a designated downtown historic district, and much of the surrounding village is designated a Neighborhood Historic District.
Many of the back streets are still lined by trees planted in the early to mid-1800s, framing Victorian-era buildings that housed workers and owners of retail businesses and industry.
And at what was considered the center of the community at the time stands the former Methodist church, at the confluence of School and Atkinson streets.
School Street leads straight to the front doors of the church, and the remaining trees along its length still frame the structure. School Street Extension, where Rockingham Central Elementary is located, now borders the south side of the property and did not yet exist in a 1855 lithograph that shows a bird’s-eye view of the village from Fall Mountain in Walpole.
When Walsh broached the idea with him, Bruno said his first reaction was: “We have to save the building.”
The loss of such an important historic community building would be unthinkable, said Bruno, who witnessed other buildings become victims of neglect: the Robertson Paper mill, as well as several other early mill buildings, and various residential buildings in and around downtown.
He knew he had to act fast to save the building from deteriorating further.
“The only way to do so was through a grassroots community effort by those who want to see it preserved,” Bruno said.
Bruno took the reins from Walsh, working directly with Fortier to complete the transaction. By Jan. 21, the new group owned the former meetinghouse, for a dollar.
The next step will be fixing the roof later this spring, kicking off with another fundraiser.
The Village’s oldest church
With the advent of the canal that was completed in 1802, and establishment of the village charter in 1831, the plateau above the Great Falls was growing, and mills along both sides of the river were leveraging the water to power the industry of the day.
According to the 1907 History of the Town of Rockingham Vermont, by Lyman Simpson Hayes, after several decades of the Methodists meeting for worship with a traveling circuit preacher in the homes of parishioners, a meetinghouse was built on the present site in 1835.
Now the oldest remaining church building in the village, the meetinghouse was a clear and prominent feature in early maps and lithographs of the village.
Gail Golec, an archeologist with Monadnock Archaeological Consulting LLC in Walpole, N.H., says that location was chosen “intentionally” for its central location. Succeeding early lithographs show the focal point of the growing populace as outward from the intersection where the building still stands today. Traffic down School Street still flows directly to the building’s front doors.
To build it, the funding came, in part, from “prominent businessmen” Sanford Granger, Charles E. Chase Sr., and S. Cowdry, by purchasing church pews, according to Hayes. By 1861, an organ was installed; one wall in the audience room hides what might have been its location. No one remembers if the pipes are still there.
During a tour of the building with Fortier, he pointed out the original wood flooring of the audience room. Framing the stairwell are huge hand-hewn wooden beams, adz marks clear in the wood.
Fortier pointed out the one large remaining stained-glass window, also in need of repairs.
Early photos show the tower in its original location before the building was elevated in 1880, when the first-floor vestry and social rooms were added below the audience room.
According to Hayes, more improvements occurred in 1900, but the historian makes no mention of what they were.
Today, a blue tarp covers the one hole in the roof. Paint is peeling off the clapboards in several places. And the remaining stained-glass window, with an unobstructed view of the rising sun over Fall Mountain, is missing several small pieces of the tall, intricately seamed and painted stained- glass depiction of Jesus sowing seeds.
Every good historian loves a mystery, and several come with the building.
Like, what happened to the the six original stained-glass windows?
Fortier said he thinks that the original stained-glass windows on the north and south sides of the east-facing building had been sold at some point early on, likely to raise money for the first of two major changes to the building. But the whereabouts of the windows remain a mystery.
And the parsonage next door at 75 Atkinson St., built in 1850, was sold in 1892 and moved to Underhill Avenue, though exactly where is unclear. In 1907, Hayes noted that the house was still at the new location.
Those are questions they hope to eventually resolve as they continue to do more research, down the line, Golec and Bruno both told The Commons.
But first, the building must be stabilized.
Fortunately, Bruno is not the only “history nerd” in town.
Several conversations later, the “they” who “should do something” became a grassroots group of community members forming the Bellows Falls Cultural Preservation Project (BFPP), made up of Bruno and Golec, along with Diana Jones and Jon Midura.
Bruno said the title was transferred “for a dollar” with an agreement for BFCPP to cover the cost of insurance and legal fees the new group had agreed to pay back to BFADC.
Vernon Temple, board president of Meeting Waters YMCA, said that those involved with the organization could not be more pleased that the former Methodist church “will remain a fixture and resource for years to come.”
Bruno said the first priority is to renovate the building by fixing the hole in the roof, fixing the parking-lot grade that is funneling water into the basement, and stabilizing the building.
Then, they envision a revitalized community space that could provide a focus for the surrounding neighborhood once again, a place where neighbors can get together for events and classes.
With the BF Community Bike Project possibly moving in across the street to the old laundromat building, and with continued use of the community gardens, Golec said the BFCPP hopes to see a rebirth of activity moving toward that historic center of the village.
Raising the money
Using GoFundMe, an online fundraising site, the project has raised more than $1,800 so far, exceeding the $1,700 estimated to help defray immediate startup costs.
Bruno said in addition to the online fundraising, people have given him checks toward the costs of insuring the property, incorporating as a nonprofit, and seeking a tax-deductible and tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service.
“More significant fundraising will begin in the spring” to address the roof issues, Bruno said.
He said he hopes that the necessary journeymen and business owners step up and volunteer their services to stabilize and secure the building.
“Bellows Falls is a community brimming with extraordinary architecture, and I want to do all I can to assist in its preservation,” said Charlie Hunter, an early supporter of the online fundraising campaign.
“Adaptive reuse of historic structures is key to the future of our village,” Hunter said. “The former Y is an anchor building for the Atkinson/School Street neighborhood, and I applaud Michael Bruno stepping forward to shepherd this building into its next chapter.”