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Residents Gather to Discuss Ways to Renovate West Hartford Church

Sue Fox, of Quechee, walks through the sanctuary of the West Hartford church after attending a meeting with more than 40 people  to discuss its future in West Hartford yesterday. (Valley News - Libby March)

Sue Fox, of Quechee, walks through the sanctuary of the West Hartford church after attending a meeting with more than 40 people to discuss its future in West Hartford yesterday. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

West Hartford — Jack Heavisides has lived in West Hartford since 1947, but it wasn’t until last night that he had ever set foot in the old church building overlooking the small village on the outskirts of town.

In a round of introductions at last night’s community gathering that drew more than 40 people to galvanize support for restoring the 180-year-old West Hartford Congregational Church on Route 14, Heavisides, who grew up in the area trimming and cutting corn by hand, said little at first, only quipping that it “felt good” to finally be inside.

But by the end of the meeting, which was largely concerned with the feasibility of restoring the church, Heavisides was waxing philosophical and inspiring others with tokens of wisdom that were soon scribbled down onto a large pad of paper at the front of the room.

“You’ve got to extend a hand to get one back,” he said.

Asked to elaborate, Heavisides added, “You don’t have an enemy, just a friend that you haven’t met.”

At last night’s meeting, many would-be friends introduced themselves and then divided into three subcommittees at the meeting’s end: a building committee, a fundraising committee and a visioning committee.

The three committees will all have plenty of work to do. Ann Cousins, a field service representative from the Preservation Trust of Vermont, said it would cost around $336,000 to restore the building, not including water, electricity or sewer services.

As for the vision of the church’s future, that’s still very much a developing picture. Among the potential uses listed last night were a seasonal arts venue, a meeting room, a senior citizen day center, a center for social services delivery, a youth services center, a children’s Bible study camp and a multidenominational place of worship.

Nichole Hastings, who works as an Appalachian Trail monitor for the Green Mountain Club, said she was very interested in the idea of converting part of the building into a hostel for thru-hikers, and made a financial argument in support of that idea.

Hastings said that at least 900 hikers typically make it to the Upper Valley on their journey north or south each year, and that there is a lack of affordable resting spots in places like Quechee, Hanover and Norwich. A $20 fee for a night’s camping, she said, could net $18,000 in annual revenue.

“All the hikers come right through here,” Hastings said. “They walk right past this building.”

But there are structural challenges that could make difficult to restore the church.

Larry Davis, who has renovated historic buildings in Pomfret, Barnard and Sharon, said that the church building is “at a turning point.”

“If it (deteriorates) much further, this building will get to the point where it’s going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more to save it,” he said.

Davis said the building is actually in “fairly good shape,” but faces some real challenges, especially in the bell tower, which he said is “standing by habit” and has become primarily a nesting place for pigeons. But Davis also spoke of the building’s potential, and mentioned the discovery of a “secret room” above the main entrance that seemed to be originally used as a choir hall.

As for the practical steps needed to be taken in a restoration effort, Davis listed restoring the windows, rebuilding the tower, roofing, painting, replacing the siding, repairing the plaster, and more.

He said that the possibility of adding a bathroom, which the church does not currently have, would be “tricky” due to the size of the lot and the need for there to be 150 feet of clearance between a drinking well and a septic system.

Lori Hirshfield, director of planning and development for the town of Hartford, spoke about the parking situation at the church. Hirshfield said that the community could likely find a solution if they “kept at it,” whether that be through an auxiliary lot and shuttle service or an off-site parking lot within 1,000 feet, both of which would satisfy regulations.

After the meeting, West Hartford resident Jim Clock said that the discussion represented a “step forward” given the interest those in attendance expressed in restoring the church.

Clock, who said he had no attachment to the building other than living nearby and attending a Halloween party there, added that most in the community would like to see it preserved, and echoed the words of Heavisides from earlier in the meeting.

“You’ve got to put out a hand,” Clock said. “You can’t do it yourself. You’ve got to have help.”

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.