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Stabilizing the past for the future

Firms work to save historic railroad building as part of Union Station Project

BRATTLEBORO—An earthmover labors under a strong April sun, layering soil over the ground where the former Brattleboro Gasworks and Scalehouse once stood overlooking the Connecticut River.

The town is rolling ahead with the Union Station project. After two decades of delays from financial problems, legal issues, and even Tropical Storm Irene, the Union Station project broke ground March 29.

The project will transform the former industrial area into a community park and open a view to the Connecticut River, to which the town, in more polluted days, turned its back.

South of the former Gasworks stands the split and peeling Archery Building. The state Division for Historic Preservation believes that under the building’s layers of siding, paint, and hodgepodge additions lie the bones of the town’s first railroad station.

Bob Stevens of Stevens & Associates, a Brattleboro firm specializing in structural and civil engineering, landscape architecture, and planning services, pulls at a splintering piece of siding.

Chunks of wood break off in his hand.

“Don’t open that can of worms, Bob. Put it back,” said Cory Frehsee, a principal with Stevens & Associates.

Stevens pulls the siding away enough to view what it hides. He sighs, shakes his head, and pushes the siding back into place.

Stevens and Frehsee talk with Tony Farnum of Tony Farnum Construction, Inc., about the best way to stabilize the structure to protect it from the effects of weather, human activity, and burrowing animals while the project seeks funding for rehabilitation.

“[It’s important to] preserve the building, so planning can be done so it can be put back to productive use,” Stevens said.

According to Town Manager Barbara Sondag, the state had deemed the building a historic structure when the town bought the property in 2006.

Sondag said the Union Station project has not included a plan for the Archery building, and that ideas for its use have ranged from demolition to preservation.

Initial designs for the Union Station area completed by Stevens & Associates did include preservation of both the Gasworks and Archery buildings, she said. Because of industrial contamination around the Gasworks building, the town decided to pull that structure down.

Selectboard member Dora Bouboulis looks on as Stevens, Frehsee, and Farnum assess the building.

Preservation an option

According to Bouboulis, when the town purchased the Archery Building more than a decade ago, the Union Station plans originally included the building’s demolition. Now that the building has been deemed historically significant, it will be preserved for future use.

Bouboulis said that the Union Station committee met earlier to discuss its next move, but has no concrete plans.

Funding could eventually arrive from the state or a public/private collaboration, said Bouboulis.

Stevens said the town will likely lease out the building in the future. Federal Transit Administration (FTA) funds helped purchase the structure, so it’s unlikely the Federal government would allow the town to sell the building to a private enterprise, he said.

Stevens and Farnum discuss patching portions of the slate roof, closing up the windows, and covering over areas of missing clapboard. Tar paper shudders in the breeze, exposing portions of narrow clapboard painted a vivid green. According to Stevens, the tar paper will likely blow off so the siding will need covering to keep the weather out.

Frehsee explains that stabilizing and mothballing the building should keep it from deteriorating further. The Union Station’s budget does not provide for renovation at this time, he said. If a building sits for years while the town finds funding, the weatherizing will at least keep it from getting worse.

Pointing to the crew working over the site of the former Gas Works, Frehsee said a big thank you goes to Zaluzny Excavating Corp. of Vernon for managing to keep the project moving forward despite unpredictable twists and turns.

Despite the state’s determination that the Archery Building is historically significant, Stevens said the building’s history is a mystery.

One wing of the building hides a former cold storage area, and ferreted into the building’s center is a grain elevator. The two features suggest the building served as a meat packing facility.

Stevens said one community member told him the building was located closer to Vernon and later moved to downtown Brattleboro.

Brattleboro used to have a Victorian-era train station located where Barrows and Fisher Oil now stands. This train station served both the narrow gauge line of the West River Railroad, and the main line of the Central Vermont and Boston & Maine Railroads that snaked through Brattleboro.

The Victorian station was pulled down and replaced by Union Station in 1915, which is now home to the Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center and an Amtrak waiting room in the building’s basement.

The Archery Building predates both stations, said Stevens.

He estimates the Union Station project budget allows for about $15,000 to stabilize the Archery Building.

Stevens likes the building’s historical character saying, “I don’t take that lightly.”

Experience has taught Stevens that rehabilitating a building does not always cost more than tearing it down and rebuilding.

When asked if the Archery Building is too tattered to save, Stevens smiled.

“All buildings look old and tired if you don’t take care of them,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #149 (Wednesday, April 25, 2012).

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