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W. Hartford Church, Hub of Irene Relief, Gets Some TLC

  • Jane Davis of Quechee, Vt., left, and Randi Harron of Pomfret, Vt., middle, remove old carpet from the sanctuary of the West Hartford Church as Judy Roberts of West Hartford, Vt. pulls carpet tacks during a workday Saturday, August 24, 2013. Volunteers are doing what they can to preserve the long vacant building that served as a community gathering place in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, while working towards securing funds for a restoration.<br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>jpatterson@vnews.com<br/>photo@vnews.com

    Jane Davis of Quechee, Vt., left, and Randi Harron of Pomfret, Vt., middle, remove old carpet from the sanctuary of the West Hartford Church as Judy Roberts of West Hartford, Vt. pulls carpet tacks during a workday Saturday, August 24, 2013. Volunteers are doing what they can to preserve the long vacant building that served as a community gathering place in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, while working towards securing funds for a restoration.
    Valley News - James M. Patterson
    jpatterson@vnews.com
    photo@vnews.com Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dick Davis of Quechee looks on at right as Larry Davis of South Royalton, left, and Kathy Arkwright of West Hartford, middle, secure a sheet of plexiglass over a window of the West Hartford Church Saturday, August 24, 2013. Dick Davis and his group of volunteers that came together following Tropical Storm Irene held the work day to help prevent further deteriorating of the building as volunteers continue to consider the possibility of restoring the building as a community gathering place, church, or hostel for hikers of the Appalachian Trail. <br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>jpatterson@vnews.com<br/>photo@vnews.com

    Dick Davis of Quechee looks on at right as Larry Davis of South Royalton, left, and Kathy Arkwright of West Hartford, middle, secure a sheet of plexiglass over a window of the West Hartford Church Saturday, August 24, 2013. Dick Davis and his group of volunteers that came together following Tropical Storm Irene held the work day to help prevent further deteriorating of the building as volunteers continue to consider the possibility of restoring the building as a community gathering place, church, or hostel for hikers of the Appalachian Trail.
    Valley News - James M. Patterson
    jpatterson@vnews.com
    photo@vnews.com Purchase photo reprints »

  • In this Aug. 22, 2013 photo, Kara Fitzgerald looks at the river which destroyed her Evening Song Farm during Tropical Storm Irene in Wallingford, Vt. Two years after Irene washed away ten acres of summer crops and topsoil, Evening Song Farm is back selling produce_ thanks in part to borrowed money and borrowed land. Today she grows crops on a hillside about a mile away. Like thousands of other Vermonters whose lives were changed by Irene, the 28-year-old farmer picked  up with the help of strangers, loans, a small amount of government assistance and work. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

    In this Aug. 22, 2013 photo, Kara Fitzgerald looks at the river which destroyed her Evening Song Farm during Tropical Storm Irene in Wallingford, Vt. Two years after Irene washed away ten acres of summer crops and topsoil, Evening Song Farm is back selling produce_ thanks in part to borrowed money and borrowed land. Today she grows crops on a hillside about a mile away. Like thousands of other Vermonters whose lives were changed by Irene, the 28-year-old farmer picked up with the help of strangers, loans, a small amount of government assistance and work. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Volunteers that gathered for a work day at the West Hartford Church laugh together Saturday, August 24, 2013. The group is considering the possibility and value of restoring the building as a community gathering place, church, or hikers hostel. <br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>jpatterson@vnews.com<br/>photo@vnews.com

    Volunteers that gathered for a work day at the West Hartford Church laugh together Saturday, August 24, 2013. The group is considering the possibility and value of restoring the building as a community gathering place, church, or hikers hostel.
    Valley News - James M. Patterson
    jpatterson@vnews.com
    photo@vnews.com Purchase photo reprints »

  • Wendell Kenison of West Hartford, Vt., middle, listens in as Doug Tuthill of Pomfret, right, discusses his concerns over the cost and difficulty of renovating a historic building like the West Hartford Church, and the possibility that it will remain unused with Dick Davis of Quechee in West Hartford, Saturday, August 23, 2013. Davis is leading a volunteer effort to save the building and says he is aware of the challenges involved in the process. "I don't think we're here with rose colored glasses," said Davis. <br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>jpatterson@vnews.com<br/>photo@vnews.com

    Wendell Kenison of West Hartford, Vt., middle, listens in as Doug Tuthill of Pomfret, right, discusses his concerns over the cost and difficulty of renovating a historic building like the West Hartford Church, and the possibility that it will remain unused with Dick Davis of Quechee in West Hartford, Saturday, August 23, 2013. Davis is leading a volunteer effort to save the building and says he is aware of the challenges involved in the process. "I don't think we're here with rose colored glasses," said Davis.
    Valley News - James M. Patterson
    jpatterson@vnews.com
    photo@vnews.com Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jane Davis of Quechee, Vt., left, and Randi Harron of Pomfret, Vt., middle, remove old carpet from the sanctuary of the West Hartford Church as Judy Roberts of West Hartford, Vt. pulls carpet tacks during a workday Saturday, August 24, 2013. Volunteers are doing what they can to preserve the long vacant building that served as a community gathering place in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, while working towards securing funds for a restoration.<br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>jpatterson@vnews.com<br/>photo@vnews.com
  • Dick Davis of Quechee looks on at right as Larry Davis of South Royalton, left, and Kathy Arkwright of West Hartford, middle, secure a sheet of plexiglass over a window of the West Hartford Church Saturday, August 24, 2013. Dick Davis and his group of volunteers that came together following Tropical Storm Irene held the work day to help prevent further deteriorating of the building as volunteers continue to consider the possibility of restoring the building as a community gathering place, church, or hostel for hikers of the Appalachian Trail. <br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>jpatterson@vnews.com<br/>photo@vnews.com
  • In this Aug. 22, 2013 photo, Kara Fitzgerald looks at the river which destroyed her Evening Song Farm during Tropical Storm Irene in Wallingford, Vt. Two years after Irene washed away ten acres of summer crops and topsoil, Evening Song Farm is back selling produce_ thanks in part to borrowed money and borrowed land. Today she grows crops on a hillside about a mile away. Like thousands of other Vermonters whose lives were changed by Irene, the 28-year-old farmer picked  up with the help of strangers, loans, a small amount of government assistance and work. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
  • Volunteers that gathered for a work day at the West Hartford Church laugh together Saturday, August 24, 2013. The group is considering the possibility and value of restoring the building as a community gathering place, church, or hikers hostel. <br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>jpatterson@vnews.com<br/>photo@vnews.com
  • Wendell Kenison of West Hartford, Vt., middle, listens in as Doug Tuthill of Pomfret, right, discusses his concerns over the cost and difficulty of renovating a historic building like the West Hartford Church, and the possibility that it will remain unused with Dick Davis of Quechee in West Hartford, Saturday, August 23, 2013. Davis is leading a volunteer effort to save the building and says he is aware of the challenges involved in the process. "I don't think we're here with rose colored glasses," said Davis. <br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>jpatterson@vnews.com<br/>photo@vnews.com

West Hartford — Coffee pots at the ready, a table filled with salty snacks and homemade muffins, volunteers sporting sweatshirts and work gloves — the scene at West Hartford Congregational Church on Route 14 yesterday recalled the months following Tropical Storm Irene, when the church was a hub for local relief efforts, a busy meeting point for volunteers and those driven from their houses by floodwaters.

But instead of delivering meals and mucking out homes and businesses, these volunteers were turning their energy toward the 180-year-old building.

For some time now, the church has been used infrequently, offering a few services a year and hosting occasional community events, such an annual Halloween party. But recently, its central role in Irene recovery has placed the Greek Revival building, part of the West Hartford Village Historic District, in the spotlight.

Organizer Dick Davis, part of After Irene Ministry-Upper Valley, spoke to the group gathered in the church basement yesterday before they picked up their pliers, drills and hammers.

In the years following Irene, the ministry delivered food and supplies to 80 homes and 13 businesses affected by the storm; now, they are visiting just three or four families, Davis said. To continue their mission of “building community,” the group, along with church trustees, is exploring the possibility of preserving the building, which was also home base for local relief efforts during the flood of 1927.

“This place fed more people more times and for more weeks than most of us can appreciate,” Davis said.

During a short ceremony that included a prayer for “all those who suffered loss” during Irene, he asked the group to reflect on “where we’ve been” since the church was built, and “where we are going.”

It’s a vision that is still developing, and not everyone at yesterday’s meeting agreed on what it might look like.

Doug Tuthill questioned whether it would be a good use of money to restore the property, which needs a septic system and has little onsite parking.

“It’s my tax dollars and it’s your tax dollars,” said Tuthill, of North Pomfret. When it comes to old buildings, “it’s nice to have them, but it’s nice to have them where they make sense.”

Davis pointed out that parking is available at the nearby West Hartford Village Store and said he didn’t think they were “here with rose-colored glasses.”

“We’ve met with the town of Hartford … and understand that there are hurdles,” Davis said, but the clock is ticking for the building. “If we don’t do it now, it’s gone. The question is, is there is enough interest?”

Sue Fox was among about 10 volunteers who spent the day clearing brush from around the site, removing an old carpet from the sanctuary and installing Plexiglas to protect the aged windows. Fox, who first visited the building while doing Irene recovery work, said she’d like to see it become a church again.

The sanctuary is “magnificent, old-time … and beautiful,” she said.

Volunteer Randi Harron, who also worked on Irene relief efforts, said she sees both points of view and hopes the building will be restored, if there is a viable use for it.

“It’s a nice idea. It’s a beautiful building,” said Harron, of North Pomfret. “I want us to be smart.”

Should the project move forward, Davis anticipates creating a trust, similar to the one that raised $500,000 to buy the Barnard General Store. An organization like that would be eligible for grants that a church may not, he said. A recent estimate put the cost of repairs at $336,000, not including water, electricity or sewer services.

Yesterday morning, Davis announced that the group was applying for a $20,000 emergency preservation grant. When it comes to deciding how to use the matching grant, he said, “we have more than enough to pick from.”

Several ideas have been floated for the building, including an arts venue, a youth services center and a meeting site. There is no large public meeting space within a seven-mile radius, Davis said, and restoring the church would fill that need.

The building may also be used as a hostel for Appalachian Trail through-hikers. The location would be convenient, as hikers could eat and pick up mail at the West Hartford Village Store, Davis said, adding that a similar hostel in Killington, Vt., “pays for the building.”

Cheryl Gilbert, whose home was flooded by Irene, has spent much of the past two years rebuilding. She retired from the White River Junction post office in January, and since then has been scraping and painting, first the back and now the front of her family’s house.

“I’m sick of it,” said Gilbert, who lives just a few doors down from the church. “I never want to see another home repair in my life.”

Nonetheless, she spent yesterday raking and cleaning at the church, where she has been treasurer since age 18.

The church was a “godsend” during the flood, said Gilbert, who encouraged volunteers working in her house to stop in for a break and a cold drink. “I hope it never is used for that again, but you never know.”

For Gilbert, the place where two of her children were baptized has sentimental value, and she thinks the building, which once hosted bridal showers, birthday parties and community potlucks, would catch on as a gathering spot, if it were renovated.

“It would be nice if they did something with it,” she said. “If you don’t do something, it’s going to fall in.”

The next meeting about the project is planned for Sept. 2, at 6:30 p.m., at the church.

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.