Jim Kenyon: Ahistorical Bridgewater

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 9/1/2018 10:49:19 PM
Modified: 9/1/2018 10:49:45 PM

Demolish or restore? The Bridgewater Selectboard is trying to figure out what to do about the town’s century-old schoolhouse that was shuttered in 2015.

It shouldn’t be much of a conundrum.

Why wouldn’t Bridgewater do everything it could to save a building that’s been a focal point of the town for generations rather than bulldozing it into dust?

Apparently not everyone in town, however, thinks the 1914 schoolhouse is worth preserving — including influential members of the Bridgewater Historical Society who pooh-poohed the idea at Tuesday’s Selectboard meeting.

“It’s an old building; it’s not a historic building,” Bob Kancir, who serves on the historical society’s governing board, told me outside the town offices after the meeting. “If you go around Vermont, there are tons of buildings like this.”

Perhaps. But how many are there in Bridgewater with its unique meaning and history to that community?

“It’s a valuable building that would be impossible to replace,” resident Hank Smith told the Selectboard, noting it has an assessed value of more than $600,000.

The fate of the building became uncertain after Bridgewater’s 2015 Town Meeting, when voters approved merging elementary schools with adjacent Pomfret. With both towns suffering from declining enrollment (Bridgewater was down to fewer than 40 students), it made financial sense. Moving Bridgewater’s pupils into Pomfret’s K through 6 school, a much newer building, was also prudent.

The white clapboard schoolhouse, which was expanded twice over the years, sits on a gentle slope just off Route 4. A pair of majestic maples stand sentry at the beginning of the walkway leading to the front entrance.

“The building is a prime example of Vermont craftsmanship,” said Smith, citing the schoolhouse’s wood floors, detailed woodwork and wainscot walls.

Smith, a retired venture capitalist who has lived in town for nearly 40 years, was speaking on behalf of the town’s Save the School Building Committee, a small grassroots group formed more than a year ago to stave off the wrecking ball.

It hopes to transform the building into a multipurpose community center that offers everything from after-school programs for kids to meals for the elderly. There’s even talk of dedicating part of the building to caring for preschoolers.

Several Upper Valley cultural organizations, including Woodstock’s Pentangle Arts, have expressed interest in staging performances in the former Bridgewater Village School.

On Tuesday, Save the School supporters pitched their idea to the three-member Selectboard, and announced that the state had approved their request to form a nonprofit, which they’re calling the Bridgewater Area Community Foundation.

The newly incorporated foundation is seeking to lease the building from the town for $1 a year. It would be responsible for the building’s upkeep and management. It envisions hiring an executive director to oversee the operation.

Although no estimates were given at Tuesday’s meeting, the cost of restoring the building, which needs a new roof, for starters, will almost certainly reach six figures.

As a nonprofit, the community foundation plans to pursue state and federal preservation grants. The Green Mountain Foundation, a nonprofit with ties to Woodstock, has pledged a $100,000 grant under the condition that supporters match the potential gift through private fundraising.

But that’s not the most pressing challenge. A majority of the Selectboard — Chairman Norman “Nope” Martin and Mary Oldenburg — are clearly not ready to get behind the proposal. A vote could come as early as the board’s next meeting on Sept. 11.

They aren’t convinced organizers of the community foundation can muster enough private support to be financially successful over the long haul. “Can you guarantee this (building) isn’t going to be a tax burden on the town in 20 years?” Martin asked supporters.

“Sometimes, you just have to take a leap of faith if you want something good to happen,” said Selectboard member Lynne Bertram, who comes across as an unabashed supporter of the project.

If it doesn’t work out, Bertram told Martin, “Then you can satisfy your desire to tear it down.”

“I have no desire to tear it down,” Martin retorted.

Kancir, the historical society board member, pointed out to me that in 2016, Bridgewater voters passed a nonbinding referendum to demolish the schoolhouse.

After hearing from school supporters on Tuesday, the board turned its attention to getting demolition estimates. I’d heard that Martin, who has an excavation business, might be interested in the job.

After the meeting, Martin assured me that he won’t be a bidder. (That’s a relief — although such a blatant conflict of interest would provide plenty of column fodder.)

Martin politely declined to talk more about the demolition v. restoration debate that seems to have divided Bridgewater, pop. 936, into two camps. But he did tell me that as a kid growing up in Bridgewater, he’d gone to school in the building.

Without me having to ask, Martin, added, “Do I have any fond memories? No.”

Just because classes have moved to Pomfret doesn’t mean the Bridgewater Village School has outlived its usefulness. A building that offered preschool and after-school programs could make Bridgewater more attractive to young families looking for a place to settle. A building that hosted the arts — plays, musical performances and such — might even bring a few visitors to town.

No doubt Bridgewater would benefit from a vibrant community center. I’m not sure the same could be said for a barren lot.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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