Community Building

Renovating a West Hartford Church

Not enough time has passed since Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont to forget the horrific toll the storm took on people’s lives, communities and the landscape. It has become progressively easier over time, however, to appreciate how the disaster delivered useful lessons along with the damage — not just about the importance of emergency preparation and flood mitigation but also about the prominent role community support plays in helping people reassemble their shattered lives.

In West Hartford village, much of which was overwhelmed by the White River, it is still impossible to drive along Route 14 without being struck by how different the community looks from pre-Irene days. Much has been rebuilt, but the scars from the catastrophe remain all too visible. But for all the devastation, the community proved remarkably resilient, which perhaps explains why some are now focused on reclaiming a building that played an important role in holding the village together through some of the most difficult days — the West Hartford Congregational Church. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that the storm helped people grasp the importance and the potential of the building. It provided a makeshift distribution center for food and water to as many as 80 families, not to mention a gathering place to share stories and support.

Before the storm, the church had fallen into a state of disuse and disrepair. Its congregation had stopped holding regular worship services there and no longer had the numbers or resources to restore or even properly maintain the building, which dates back to the Jacksonian era.

Now, thanks to a grant secured by the volunteer group After Irene Ministry-Upper Valley, planning is under way to not simply figure out how to renovate the building and put it on a more secure financial footing, but also to come up with uses that would expand the role it plays. Among the ideas that surfaced at a meeting Tuesday night to discuss the church’s future: a senior center, community meeting hall, drop-in center, interfaith sanctuary, arts venue and hostel for Appalachian Trail thru-hikers who tromp past the building each year.

It won’t be easy. According to an official from the Preservation Trust of Vermont, which provided the planning grant, the cost of basic renovation — repairing windows, rebuilding the tower, putting on a new roof and getting new paint, siding and plaster, among other things — would exceed $300,000 and still not address such needs as electricity and plumbing. Moreover, timing is critical. Larry Davis, who has undertaken historical renovations in other communities, said that the building is in decent shape considering the circumstances, but warned that renovation would become much more expensive if structural deterioration is allowed to continue and too much time elapses before reclamation begins.

In any case, the role played by the building in the village’s recovery appears to have served as a revelation to the community, and participants seem unfazed by the challenge. Stephen Arkwright, who lives next door to the church, brushed off a question about whether enough money could be raised to restore the building. He says he has fielded too many offers from people wanting to contribute in some way to the effort to harbor doubts.

“There’s always been people wanting to get involved, but ... the flood is what did it,” Arkwright told Valley News staff writer Ben Conarck. “ ... The flood started bringing people to the church, and then the community got together.”

We were struck by the fact that among the 40 or so people who showed up at the meeting was Jack Heavisides, a West Hartford native who has lived in that part of town for more than six decades, yet had never ventured inside the building — until the Tuesday evening meeting. How many times had he and others in West Hartford driven past the church without paying it much notice? Irene apparently changed that, and the Congregational church appears poised to receive attention not merely as a historic structure worthy of preservation but also as an asset of a community that recognizes its strengths and fully values its possibilities.