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Arts remain in Brooks House’s future

Committee discusses role of arts community in building’s rebirth

BRATTLEBORO—The scaffolding and dumpsters that ring the front of the Brooks House will be around for the next 6 to 8 weeks, and while the long-term future of the Main Street landmark is still in flux, it could have an unusual short-term future as the site of

the town’s biggest public arts installation.

A dozen people showed up at a meeting of the Town Arts Committee at the River Garden on Thursday to discuss ways that the arts community could respond to the aftermath of the April 17 fire that heavily damaged the landmark.

“This is a beloved and important fixture of the town and, at the same time, it is a private enterprise,” said committee chair Kate Anderson. “I believe what we are trying to do is give voice to the tremendous feeling in town for the community, what all of us mean to each other, what survival looks like in a very unpredictable future.

“We are trying to provide a way to navigate that possibly difficult phase with what the arts do best — articulate, envision, enhance, inspire, uplift, comfort, but most of all, simply allow us to communicate.”

Brooks House owner Jonathan Chase said that he appreciates that sentiment, and he articulated a positive vision for the building’s future.

“We have a blank slate right there to do something different than what we have now,” he said.

Chase and Anderson had been working for the past several months to turn some of the vacant commercial space in the Brooks House into gallery, studio, and office space for artists in town.

Chase said that the fire hasn’t changed that vision. He envisions creating a mix of residential and studio space in the upper floors, and reconfiguring the existing residential layout that is a holdover from the days when it was a hotel.

“We’re still playing around with this,” he said.

Bob Stevens, of Stevens & Associates of Brattleboro, the chief engineer on the rebuilding project, said it will take six to eight weeks to clear the debris from the fire and stabilize the building to the point that reconstruction work can begin.

The walls are being stripped to the bare brick and studs, he said, adding that the structural integrity of the building is sound enough for repairs.

Stevens pointed to the Exner Block in Bellows Falls, a former boarding house that was reconfigured into artist housing, studio space, and galleries in the late 1990s, as an example of what the Brooks House could become.

“There will be a lot of conceptual planning in the coming months,” said Stevens. “It’s going to take time to do that, come up with a design, and secure all the permits and funding.”

He added that the process from clean-out to finished reconstruction took about 18 months after the Wilder Block fire in December 2004.

Town Planner Rod Francis said that a continued configuration of the Brooks House as a mixed-use building, even with an emphasis on artists’ needs, fits its current zoning use requirements.

Aside from the prohibition against first-floor residential space in the downtown area, Francis said that Chase “can do just about anything [he] wants.”

Before that happens, though, there was talk Thursday of using the exterior of the Brooks House as a blank canvas for area artists to create something that, in the words of Arts Committee member Hugh Keelan, would reflect “an overarching vision to help us move toward rebirth.”

Some possibilities: Putting art in the empty storefront windows, projecting historic scenes of Brattleboro on the building’s exterior, painting artwork on the plywood that will soon cover the upper-floor windows, and hanging a banner from the building’s cupola.

Committee member Doug Cox stressed the need to move quickly “to take advantage of the ideas and energy” that have emerged since the fire.

Anderson said that anyone with ideas is encouraged to send them in to the arts committee.

“We don’t know of any other communities who have done anything like this,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #99 (Wednesday, May 4, 2011).

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