The marquee of downtown Brattleboro’s Latchis building offers a message for a state hard-hit by summer storms.
Kevin O’Connor/
The marquee of downtown Brattleboro’s Latchis building offers a message for a state hard-hit by summer storms.

A Brattleboro movie palace offers a picture of storm resilience

‘We’ve come through an awful lot over time,’ says the head of the Latchis, which opened during the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. ‘That just makes us very empathetic to others.’

BRATTLEBORO — When Jon Potter, director of downtown's Latchis business block, first heard the weather forecast this past July, his brain flooded with flashbacks as historic as the predicted precipitation.

Potter knew his predecessors had to postpone the formal opening of the Art Deco landmark's anchor theater 85 years ago during the Great New England Hurricane of September 1938. Years later, they had to shutter the adjacent hotel and storefronts for weeks after Tropical Storm Irene wreaked $500,000 in damage in 2011.

So imagine Potter's surprise when the Latchis was hit this summer less by record rains than an even splashier one-two punch: The "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" double feature playing on a pair of its four theater screens.

"It's been absolutely unbelievable," he said of ticket sales for a cultural phenomenon called "Barbenheimer," set to continue this anniversary weekend. "We blew the last comparable period before the pandemic out of the water."

The Latchis credits its current success to the power of both films - and flood mitigation efforts that have kept its building open this year as many storm-ravaged businesses throughout the state remain closed.

"We've come through an awful lot over time," Potter said. "That just makes us very empathetic to others."

And happy to share a few lessons.

When the Greek immigrant-turned-impresario Latchis family scheduled the Sept. 22, 1938, opening of its namesake building - a four-story theater, hotel, restaurant, and shopping block advertised as "a town within a town" - it aimed to take the state by storm.

Enter a gate-crashing hurricane that nearly sidelined the inaugural 20th Century Fox movie musical My Lucky Star and Felix Ferdinando and His Orchestra, "direct from Million Dollar Pier, Atlantic City," according to the bill.

"To me," Potter said 85 years later, "it was a sign that resilience was going to have to be part of the business plan."

Learning from disaster

In 1938, the Latchis needed only to borrow a pump from the nearby fire station to bail out the basement. But when Tropical Storm Irene funneled the neighboring Whetstone Brook into the cellar in 2011, it required a two-month closure to restore the flooded electrical, plumbing and heating systems.

"We've been on the receiving end of nature's wrath," Potter said. "We've rolled with horrible winters and terrible mud seasons and tectonic changes in the culture."

The Latchis has adjusted in different ways. Businesswise, it became a nonprofit in 2003, allowing access to public and private funds for a 2013 interior facelift and continuing exterior maintenance of an address that also houses the newly renovated Latchis Pub and Underground Lounge.

Building-wise, it has reinforced brookside doors and windows and relocated many of its utilities above flood level.

Potter also credits larger mitigation efforts locally and regionally. He lives, for example, in a neighborhood 2 miles west, where the town recently replaced low-lying housing with a restored floodplain to slow and store runoff ["Funding in place to move families living in danger of flooding," News, Sept. 13].

After camping out at the Latchis a couple of rainy sleepless nights this July, he appreciated the results.

"We didn't get hit," Potter said, "and I wonder if some of those measures upstream gave us enough margin to survive."

And so this anniversary, the Latchis is offering itself as a picture of how patience, perseverance and community support can, slowly but surely, pay off.

"It's a matter of degrees," Potter said. "If you can affect the harm of a storm by 2 or 3%, that might be the difference between catastrophic flooding and just a nervous couple of days. I think every little bit helps."

This News item by Kevin O'Connor originally appeared in VtDigger and was republished in The Commons with permission.

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