PUTNEY—Sunlight glints off polished windows on a bright, but cold, Saturday afternoon. A second-story deck overlooks Sacketts Brook. A fresh coat of red paint reflects the movement of pedestrians crossing Route 5 to Kimball Hill Road.
An early winter wind catches a red, white, and blue flag unveiling the long-awaited word.
A crowd gathers before a strip of yellow ribbon.
On Nov. 1, 2009, many in Saturday’s crowd stood on the same spot, behind another yellow ribbon — police tape — as they stared into the charred remains of the 214-year-old Putney General Store building.
That fire, caused by arson, completely destroyed the oldest general store in Vermont, which was gearing up to reopen after 15 months of restoration from another fire, in 2008, which torched the store’s roof and second story.
The nonprofit Putney Historical Society had purchased the building after the first fire, which was determined to be accidental.
The store had housed memories for Putney residents and anchored the village’s economic life.
And even after two fires, the community vowed to rebuild.
Countless volunteer hours, two years of fundraising followed by construction, and an estimated $1.4 million later, the new Putney General Store stands on Dec. 10 proud and steady against a blue sky.
Applause erupts from the crowd of more than 100 as the yellow ribbon fell away, marking the store’s grand reopening.
“We’ve had tragedy but so much good fortune,” says project manager Lyssa Papazian. “We deserve this.”
She thanks the 700 donors and “nameless many” who made the store’s reopening possible.
Cutting the yellow ribbon
Ted Brady, field representative for U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., read a letter from Leahy, who helped secure $160,000 through the federal Village Revitalization Initiative for the Putney General Store project. The Preservation Trust of Vermont partnered on the grant.
Leahy called the PHS’s work “outstanding” and sent an American flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol to mark the occasion.
“There are very few historical societies that see history as part of the future,” Brady says.
In a separate interview, Brady said that the senator feels strong downtowns keep Vermont strong. Commerce has traditionally occurred in town centers, where it should remain, Brady adds.
State Sen. Jeanette White read a letter from Gov. Peter Shumlin, who said Putney set the example for what communities working together to overcome tragedy can accomplish.
White presented to the historical society, on Shumlin’s behalf, a state flag that had flown over the Statehouse and a plaque of congratulations.
People in Montpelier don’t understand Windham County, said White. And they don’t get Putney’s community spirit.
“Our community is whole again,” said state Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, adding, “You need a place for community to happen, and this is it.”
Mrowicki likes the new store, saying that the old “G-Store” — as it’s called here — “despite its charm, was falling apart.”
Restoring the focal point
“Look at what we did as a community,” says Jen Woods.
Woods, the manager of Offerings, a jewelry and gift store next door to the general store, had to recover as well from the 2009 fire, which jumped the wall separating the store from her building.
Woods says the second fire felt “impossible” to come back from and was “discouraging.”
Offerings and the apartments upstairs were left temporarily unusable, and Woods’ business was closed until August 2010.
Woods says that after its reopening, Offerings felt the decrease in foot traffic without the general store.
“This side of the street was dead,” she says.
The general store was the focus of downtown Putney, Woods explains. People routinely passing by her store on their way to pick up milk or a loaf of bread would keep Offerings, and other businesses on Kimball Hill, in their minds.
She says that she immediately noticed an uptick in shoppers during the “soft opening” of the general store earlier in the week.
New on historical foundations
Natural light filters into the store through windows — more of them than the original structure had. People wander long, high grocery aisles, peruse the frozen foods and the produce, and peer into the new deli case.
Visitors climb shiny wooden stairs to the second floor wine section, stop by the gluten-free foods, and browse the hardware.
Those who can’t climb stairs take the elevator and move to the eating area and couch in the bay window. A balcony looks out over Kimball Hill Road.
“It’s great to see [the general store] full of people,” says Bob Stevens of Stevens & Associates of Brattleboro, which performed structural and site work on the new building.
Stevens’ firm also stabilized the original store’s structure after the 2008 fire, a process that took months, he says.
Starting that process in the original building, from the basement up, helped the project team design a new building with the “sense” of the original but with a more efficient use of space and energy use, Stevens says.
Andrew and Regina Rockefeller donated the new store’s timber frame using local trees (also donated) and local labor.
According to Papazian, this donation saved the project about $110,000.
“It’s spectacular,” says Stevens. “A wonderful gift.”
The timber frame, in conjunction with a “false” floor, allows the building’s use to change with the community, say Bill Maclay and Chris Cook of Maclay Architects of Waitsfield.
The false floor provides space for new wires, a new heating system, or plumbing without digging into the building structure, says Cook, who served as the project manager.
A timber frame structure bears the building’s weight. allowing future owners to add or remove walls.
The structure makes it possible to shift use of the space from a store to apartments, or to accommodate new technology depending on what the future community wants.
The new store mirrors the old general in looks, but is not an exact reflection, says Maclay, who adds that he enjoyed working with the historical society members.
“I’m proud to be a part of the rebuilding and the impressive and inspiring volunteer effort,” Maclay says. “I don’t know of any other historical societies taking on this type of project.”
Early on board
Chris Hart, executive director of the Brattleboro Housing Authority, chairs the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB), which funneled about $100,000 into rebuilding the store.
The VHCB was one of the first funders, she says.
VHCB projects are not cheap, “but we believe Vermonters want to restore downtown buildings, like the general store or Brattleboro’s Wilder Block,” she says.
Rebuilding “needed to happen,” says Karen Freeman, VHCB director of conservation, partnership, and training.
The VHCB jumped in with funding after the 2008 fire, says Hart. It remained committed after the second fire, despite the loss of the historical building.
Rebuilding the store’s role as a downtown economic engine and its service to the community meant as much to the VHCB as preserving the original structure, says Freeman.
“We’re making a commitment to a quality of life,” Freeman says, adding that projects like the general store create a “positive ripple effect.”
Papazian watches two neighbors chatting in the upstairs eating area.
“This is what it used to feel like,” she says. “That’s what we did this for.”
Papazian says she blocked feelings of dread or fear that something — flood, fire, plague of locusts — would happen to the building before it reopened.
“We did it,” she says.
The PHS continues to raise funds to finish the project, said Papazian.
Chou’s kitchen and layout required changes to the plans, she said. The PHS made the right choice in honoring Chou’s requests, Papazian believes, but as a result, the project is carrying more debt than she wants.
“It’s nice to come full circle,” says Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont (PTV).
Bruhn says that not everyone has had the opportunity to work on “amazing” projects like the general store in their lifetimes.
His eyes redden with tears as he recalls the community’s responses to the two fires.
The day after the second fire, Bruhn attended a community meeting. The discussion about the arson and what to do next covered the spectrum from tears to anger, he says.
“People said, ‘We can’t let the community be defined by an arsonist,’” he remembers.
The PTV also helped with fundraising and, in 2008, provided the original $5,000 option to purchase the store from previous owners Erhan Oge and Tugce Okamus.
From the PTV’s view, said Bruhn, the general store’s historic building was important, but its “use to the community” is more important.
Ming Chou, the operator of the store who leases the space from the Historical Society, says he has dreamed about operating the general store for 10 years, after he fell in love with Putney and the general store during a family vacation. He had attempted to purchase the store twice before the 2009 fire.
Chou says he’s so committed to Putney that he sold the market he was operating in Massachusetts, Appletown Market in Sterling, and moved to town.
“We’ll do whatever I can to serve the community,” says Chou. “It’s not just about the money, but history.”
Store hours are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Sunday, said Chou, who has hired 10 employees.
He says the store will carry as many local products as possible.
“We have to support local,” he says.
People stop to shake Chou’s hand.
“I’m so honored,” says Chou, blinking back tears.
“Thank you for being here,” they say.
“Very nice people here,” he says. “Very supportive.”