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Who Owns Seminary Hill? Lebanon Tries to Sort Out Ownership of Former School  

  • Helene Anzalone, director of Special Services for the Lebanon School District, takes a phone call in her new office at the former Seminary Hill School last week. “I never had a classroom this big when I was teaching — much less an office.” Anzalone said. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Helene Anzalone, director of Special Services for the Lebanon School District, takes a phone call in her new office at the former Seminary Hill School last week. “I never had a classroom this big when I was teaching — much less an office.” Anzalone said. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • The new office of Lebanon’s Superintendent Gail Paludi sits unoccupied in the Seminary Hill building last week. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    The new office of Lebanon’s Superintendent Gail Paludi sits unoccupied in the Seminary Hill building last week. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Debbie Laffin, the Adult Learning Service Director for the Lebanon School District holds up a document to the light in the gym at the Seminary Hill School Building while sorting through her belongings during the moving process last week. “I love old buildings,” said Laffin, joking, “I kind of wish (the gym) could be my office.” (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Debbie Laffin, the Adult Learning Service Director for the Lebanon School District holds up a document to the light in the gym at the Seminary Hill School Building while sorting through her belongings during the moving process last week. “I love old buildings,” said Laffin, joking, “I kind of wish (the gym) could be my office.” (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • The second floor of the Seminary Hill School Building remains empty- except for the computer room which has been converted into a conference room. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    The second floor of the Seminary Hill School Building remains empty- except for the computer room which has been converted into a conference room. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Helene Anzalone, director of Special Services for the Lebanon School District, takes a phone call in her new office at the former Seminary Hill School last week. “I never had a classroom this big when I was teaching — much less an office.” Anzalone said. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • The new office of Lebanon’s Superintendent Gail Paludi sits unoccupied in the Seminary Hill building last week. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Debbie Laffin, the Adult Learning Service Director for the Lebanon School District holds up a document to the light in the gym at the Seminary Hill School Building while sorting through her belongings during the moving process last week. “I love old buildings,” said Laffin, joking, “I kind of wish (the gym) could be my office.” (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • The second floor of the Seminary Hill School Building remains empty- except for the computer room which has been converted into a conference room. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

West Lebanon — Lebanon School District has big plans for the old school building on Seminary Hill, even though it’s still not clear if the district really owns it.

The now-defunct Tilden Female Seminary was the last legal entity known to have a clear title on the property, but that school shuttered in 1890 . The Seminary Hill School was built in 1901 and sits on 5.3 acres of land, according to city records.

After learning it had no deed to the property, the school district launched a legal effort to locate any unknown successors to the Trustees of the Tilden Seminary, which had a deed to the property dating back to the late 1800s but dissolved as an organization in 1986. In the past few weeks, the district has published public notices asking any respondents to notify the Grafton Superior Court by July 8.

“If there is anyone out there that is a successor or claims an interest in the Tilden Seminary ... speak now or forever hold your peace, so to speak,” said Stephen Girdwood, a Lebanon-based attorney handling the search for the school district.

The school district is moving its administrative offices into the Seminary Hill building this month after selling its former offices on Hanover Street, with the ultimate plan being to lease out most of the Seminary Hill building and have the district offices occupy only the third floor.

When school officials checked into whether the Seminary Hill building was under a deed restriction to be used only for the purpose of education, they could not locate a legal transfer of the property to the district, “and that’s the problem,” said Girdwood.

“The superintendent and the School Board are now realizing that there doesn’t seem to be a lease or a deed on record, although the district has used (the property) since 1915 and even made improvements,” he said.

Even if there is someone who makes claim to the property, it’s not clear that it would matter, as the school district has been maintaining the property for nearly a century. The district has asked the court for “quiet title” action, which would confirm ownership of the property and the building for the school district.

According to Girdwood, the district is arguing that it has acquired the property through “adverse possession, if nothing else.” Adverse possession is determined through a long list of legal requirements, but essentially dictates that an entity can acquire a property by acting as if it owns that property.

“Basically, if you occupy property and use it as if it’s yours for a certain period of time, then you can actually acquire possession of property and keep anyone else from making claims,” Girdwood said.

This isn’t the first time the question of who owns the Seminary Hill School property has been raised. Girdwood said in the 1940s the school district asked the register of deeds for a copy of a lease, and the register wrote back saying there was no record.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the property’s ownership, Superintendent Gail Paludi said plans remain in the works for how to best utilize the West Lebanon landmark.

The offices for administrative staff are currently spread throughout the building, but the ultimate plan is to consolidate district offices on the third floor after it is renovated. Paludi stressed that those plans are still “preliminary.

“We’ll have to look at the cost estimates for the renovations, then the (School Board) will consider that,” she said.

Although the plans are far from solidified, Paludi said that there is a group hoping to establish a performing arts center using the school’s auditorium and other spaces.

Additionally, the Lebanon Recreation and Parks department has expressed interest in the school gymnasium as well as additional space in the building.

Paludi said that renovating the third floor is “probably going to have a pretty big price tag on it,” but she said cost estimates wouldn’t be available for another six to eight weeks, after the architectural drawings are completed.

A History of Its Own

While there is a considerable legal fog concerning who rightfully owns Seminary Hill School, the history of the building that stood on the property before the school is well documented in a book written by Roger Carroll titled Lebanon 1761 - 1994.

According to Carroll, Tilden Female Seminary opened in September of 1855, not long after the railroad first arrived in West Lebanon. In 1853, the state granted a charter to a group of prominent men — most of them from West Lebanon — to “establish and maintain in the village of West Lebanon a literary and scientific institution for the instruction and education of females.”

William Tilden, a wealthy varnish manufacturer in New York City who was born in West Lebanon, was recruited to underwrite the effort to launch the school. He contributed $10,000 of the $15,000 needed to construct the four-story brick school building on what was then known as Hubbard Hill.

When the school opened in 1855, more than 100 girls attended, 40 of them boarders at the school, which attracted students from as far away as California and Iowa. The school was forced to close in 1864 due to poor enrollment, but was reopened under new leadership the next year by Hiram Orcutt, who convinced Tilden to contribute $20,000 for two wings that doubled the capacity of the school.

Tilden Female Seminary would later earn a reputation as one of New England’s finest preparatory schools for girls in the later decades of the 19th century, serving mostly upper and upper-middle class students.

At the school, students began their studies at 8 a.m. and had jam-packed schedules during the day. Carroll wrote that while the “girls’ social tether was short,” the seminary was known to receive “clandestine nocturnal visits” from Dartmouth College students .

The school also garnered some unwanted publicity in 1869 when four students and four young men “took part in mock marriage ceremonies, only to learn that the man who had performed the services was a genuine justice of the peace,” according to Carroll.

The mock marriage episode prompted the Montpelier Journal to run a headline titled “Wedded in fun, but married in earnest,” above an article that read, “They have searched all the law books and consulted authorities far and near, and everything only proves the knot is still tighter.”

According to Carroll, “the Free Press reported that the couples wiggled out of the predicament when it was discovered that the justice of peace was outside his jurisdiction.”

Orcutt stayed at the school until 1880 before moving to Boston to become a partner at a publishing company. He was succeeded by E. Hubbard Barlow, a member of the school’s teaching staff who ran the institution until declining enrollment again forced its closure in 1890.

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