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Aftermath of Brooks House fire uncovers long-forgotten architectural quirks

BRATTLEBORO—Inside the gutted fifth floor “penthouse” of the Brooks House, owner Jonathan Chase blocks out imaginary walls with his hands.

A pigeon wiggles through a gap between the penthouse’s new hip roof and wall. It flaps to an opposite corner and settles on a perch.

“Picture an apartment here; an apartment here, here, and here,” he says, illustrating the four townhouse apartments he envisions in the space.

The two-story townhouse would straddle the fourth floor, and afford future tenants a view of downtown and private decks on the roof, said Chase.

“These rooms are going to be fantastic,” said Chase.

A five-alarm fire on April 17 badly damaged the Brooks House, displacing 60 tenants and 10 businesses. Investigators later determined that a staple through an electrical cable on the fourth floor sparked the blaze.

Immediately after the fire, Chase promised to rebuild the historic building that his father Norman bought in 1970.

Chase is working on estimates for restoring the building and said he has a feasibility study in the works. He expects to have the study completed by late summer or early fall for the project, which has an “optimistic” completion date of at least two years.

But there was no delaying the immediate work of cleaning and stabilizing the structure.

Contractors spent months stripping plaster, soggy carpet, and other debris from the 1871 building. Now, the brick walls stand naked in the gloom of boarded windows. Skeletal wooden beams knit together, forming floors, wall studs, support beams, and ceiling rafters.

At this early stage, Chase intends for the Brooks to remain mixed-use, with storefronts at ground level, offices on the second floor, and apartments on the remaining levels.

Chase wants to “modernize” the future apartments “in all respects.” He said he is unsure how many living spaces Brooks will have. Pre-fire, it had 59 apartments “tailored around” the hotel’s original 88 rooms.

What the fire revealed

Thousands of work hours went into filling hundreds of 30-yard Dumpsters to the brim with destroyed belongings and building materials from the Brooks House in the aftermath of the fire, said Chase.

The fire took much — especially from the Brooks House residents and businesses — but it also exposed the building’s secrets hidden behind layers of drywall.

Secrets like high ceilings in apartments that Chase had thought stood no more than eight feet. To Chase’s surprise, the two end apartments on either side of the fourth floor have cathedral ceilings under what look like squat cupolas when seen from the roof.

On a wall shared by the former Schaff Opticians, Inc. and Ultimate Impressions Hair Design, contractors found wallpaper that Chase thinks belonged to the building’s original restaurant, The Pickwick Room. The wallpaper depicts scenes from the Revolutionary War.

Chase also found abandoned gas lines that powered the hotel’s wall sconces. Cavities that once contained fireplaces pepper every floor. He points to the faded line of red and green paint on the original hotel’s floor exposed after contractors pulled up carpet soaked by the estimated 1.8 million gallons of water firefighters used to extinguish the five-alarm blaze.

The hotel had “super-wide hallways,” he said, noting the red paint extending about three feet into the footprint of a 1970s-constructed apartment. The hallway was once wide enough to accommodate benches where guests would rest and visit, said Chase.

“Sleepers” of varying heights, installed by Norman Chase in the 1970s, stretch like fishbones along the hotel’s floor.

The wooden sleepers leveled the floor according to the building’s settlement patterns, said Chase.

The metal spiral staircase still stands, twisting into the cupola that used to house legendary poker games with the likes of Rudyard Kipling, said Chase.

One of the first tenants to rent the space from Norman Chase in the 1970s, said Chase, was a hairdresser who installed his dryer chairs in the cupola.

“Imagine that view while you’re getting your hair dried,” said Chase.

The fire also exposed the mystery of the ballroom’s “sprung floor.”

Sprung floors act as shock absorbers for dancers and are still used in theater stages and dance studios.

Chase says, however, he couldn’t figure out how the original builders constructed the second floor ballroom that stretches along High Street. The ballroom didn’t contain the usual padding or “basket weave” design of most sprung floors.

Recently exposed support beams told the story. “The ballroom is freestanding,” said Chase.

Heavy cross support beams hidden within the walls of the fourth floor slant downward to the floor below. Metal tie rods reach from the cross beams and attach to the ballroom’s ceiling, suspending the ballroom within the Brooks House.

Bringing it back

The Brooks House replaced wooden structures destroyed by fire on Oct. 31, 1869. Brattleboro native George J. Brooks bought the burned-out downtown property and built the Brooks House for $150,000. Furnishings for the 1871 Second Empire style 88-room hotel cost over $30,000.

Brooks had returned to the area after profiting from the early days of the California gold rush as a dry goods retailer in San Francisco.

According to Chase, contractors finished stabilizing the building in late July, after three months of work that included masonry work to the brick walls overlooking the Harmony parking lot.

Chase points to the two large aqua-colored columns flanking the former Adagio Trattoria’s ground-level dining room. He explains the cast-iron columns date back to when the hotel’s lobby inhabited the space. The columns may also serve as weight-bearing posts, according to Chase, who said that he would like the space to serve once again as the building’s main entrance.

Downstairs, contractors have stacked toilets and urinals in a corner of the former Mole’s Eye Cafe. A few tables remain scattered through the former tavern, and stacks of dishes sit on the back bar. A large fan blows air from outside.

Chase, who calls the tavern by its original name: “The Oak Room,” says that he wants to preserve as many of the Brooks House’s historical details as possible, details like the room’s oak panelling. He has also stockpiled portions of the building’s tin ceilings.

The Oak Room space will remain a tavern after the rebuild, Chase promised.

In the two fourth floor end apartments, Chase said he wants to expose the cathedral ceilings created by the cupolas, build a loft and install windows along the cupolas’ edges to let in natural light.

Contractors salvaged as many of the slate roofing tiles from original roof that capped the penthouse, said Chase.

“We’re excited about a lot of things,” Chase said of the project’s improvement wish-list.

He hopes to restore the Main Street storefronts to mimic the original 1871 style, and money permitting, bring back the original facade, two-story veranda and all, that disappeared in the 1920s.

Chase has hired an architect to study period photographs and look into restoring that aspect of the building.

Chase and Kate Anderson, chair of the Brattleboro Town Arts Committee, had discussed turning the ballroom into an incubator space for artists prior to the spring fire, he said. Other suggestions, such as a public function or co-work space, are also on the table, he said.

Alex Wilson, founder of Building Green, an environmental building news journal and website based in town, has “weighed in on” energy-efficient construction for the Brooks House with an eye to turning it into a LEED-certified building, said Chase.

Optimistic estimates

While the “optimistic” estimate for rebuilding the Brooks House is two years, said Chase, the project might take much longer.

A lot of work has gone into drawing up a complete set of blueprints, which no longer existed after multiple owners and renovations, said Chase.

Dennis Frehsee and Sabine Dickel of Williams & Frehsee, Inc., a Brattleboro-based architectural firm, will draw up design plans, while Tom Appel, a community development consultant, will coordinate funding from town, state, and federal sources.

Possible funding sources include the New Market Tax Credit program of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and community block grants, said Chase.

Bob Stevens, of Stevens & Associates, jumped in days after the fire to perform a structural analysis. The engineering and planning firm is partnering with Williams & Frehsee on the building’s feasibility study.

Chase hopes to open the storefronts first and then work upward. He said that he will conduct a market study to identify what businesses and individuals would thrive in the future Brooks House.

Although he has big plans for the apartments, he doesn’t anticipate rents “catapulting.”

“I don’t think the rents will go up,” he speculated, because planned energy efficiencies will make the building less expensive to operate. The feasibility study will project rents with more accuracy.

To the community, Chase said, “it’s very quiet now” at the Brooks House, now that the building is stable.

But, he promises, the project will keep moving forward.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #112 (Wednesday, August 3, 2011).

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