ATHENS—This town’s Old Brick Church is nearly 200 years old, and a group of volunteers has plans to restore its former status as an important community center.
But first, they’ve got to stabilize a building so deteriorated that the public has been barred from entering. A new, $20,000 state historic preservation grant — one of a dozen such grants announced by the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation — will help move the town and its Athens Meeting House Committee toward that goal.
“I think this is a fabulous start,” said Sherry Maher, chair of the committee.
The state’s latest round of historic preservation grants total $199,367. There was plenty of competition for that pot of money: Officials said the Vermont Advisory Council on Historic Preservation reviewed 56 grant applications requesting a total of $871,939.
Three of the 12 awardees are in Windham County, and that’s the most projects recognized in any one county. In addition to the Athens effort, the state awarded $20,000 to restore the Daisy Turner Homestead in Grafton and $6,725 for ongoing work at the Newfane Railroad Depot.
In Athens, the Old Brick Church served as “a gathering place where Old Home Days were celebrated, where the militia mustered, where famous speakers of the day addressed capacity crowds, and where religious services of any denomination could be held,” supporters wrote in their grant application.
The effort to restore the building for renewed public use carries an estimated $60,000 price tag.
“We are continuing to look into other potential funding sources, and we’re going to be doing a fund-raising campaign with the Athens Historic Preservation Society,” Maher said. The goal, she added, is to stabilize the building this year “and then be able to look at whatever volunteer efforts we can put together to spruce it up for the 200th anniversary of the building the following summer.”
In neighboring Grafton, it’s expected that the state grant will help breathe new life into a property known alternately as the Turner Homestead or Journey’s End. It’s the site where former slave Alex Turner settled in 1873.
Turner was “a well-known storyteller, a trait he passed to his daughter, Daisy,” state officials said. “The family’s oral history has made the Turner Homestead one of the best-documented African American history sites in Vermont.”
Officials want to restore Birchdale House, a guest house on the state-owned Turner property, for use as an unstaffed historic site that is easily accessible to the public.
“A good access road, building restoration, interpretation and handicapped access will open the site for the public to learn about the nationally significant history of an African American family living on a Vermont hill farm,” officials wrote in their grant application.
That application, filed by the Preservation Trust of Vermont, says the Grafton-based Windham Foundation “has agreed to take ownership of the property as well as steward and maintain it.” But a Windham Foundation representative on Monday said that transaction has not yet taken place.
The smallest of the county’s historical preservation grants nonetheless is appreciated by Windham County Historical Society, which has purchased and is renovating the former Newfane Railroad Depot. “When you look at the amount of money that was requested (statewide), we are really grateful for the partial grant that we received,” said Laura Wallingford-Bacon, society president.
The building served as a station on the famed West River Railroad, which was completed in 1880 and ran from Brattleboro to South Londonderry. Dubbed the “36 miles of trouble,” it was as well-known for wrecks and other mishaps as it was for the relative speed with which it whisked travelers through Windham County.
The county historical society plans to use the station both as a complement to the county museum, located a short distance away on Route 30, and as a stand-alone West River Railroad museum. Work began last year and included a new roof, excavation, drainage and electrical connections.
“We’re on hold for the winter, and we expect to resume in June,” Wallingford-Bacon said.
Nine other projects received state grants. Those preservation projects are in Bennington, Brandon, Brownington, Burlington, Calais, Lyndonville, Montpelier, Morrisville, and Norwich.