Hatch starts from scratch to help Bean Hall

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-19-2023 7:07 AM

WEST FAIRLEE — Jillian Hatch drives by Bean Hall multiple times a day. Often, her two young sons are with her, and one of them will inevitably ask the question, “What is that, and why is it closed?”

And so Hatch tells them about the three-story historic building on Route 113 in the center of West Fairlee. She tells them about the Halloween parties she attended there as a kid, the snowmobile club’s chicken barbecues her family took part in, the cake walks where she picked up sweets and how she walked across Bean Hall’s stage when she graduated from sixth grade.

“I said to them, ‘I’m not really sure why (it’s closed), but Mommy is going to do her best to give to you what I had growing up and to all the other kids in town,’ ” Hatch said in a phone interview last month.

Hatch is now leading an effort to revitalize Bean Hall, which closed in 2008 after it was deemed structurally unsound. Over the years, numerous committees and community groups have been formed to decide what to do with the hall, which is on the register of historic places.

“I feel very strongly about starting from scratch and kind of letting go of any sort of negative energy and thoughts that were in place 15 years ago about this building,” Hatch said.

Bean Hall was built in the early 1900s after a fire destroyed the previous town hall, said Doug Sonsalla, president of the West Fairlee Historical Society. He was on the Selectboard in 2008 when residents voted against renovating Bean Hall and move the town offices to the old elementary school, now known as the community building.

“Rather than address the fire marshal issue, it was decided to more or less abandon the building,” Sonsalla said in a phone interview last month, citing a report that deemed Bean Hall to be unsafe for occupancy. Instead, it was decided to spend a lesser amount money upgrading the old school to meet the needs of the town offices. “It was a cost decision.”

Sonsalla, an architect, said the building’s floors are not strong enough by modern standards to support the weight that they need to.

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“The load capacity of the floors are inadequate so it requires floor joists to be reinforced to meet current standards,” he said. “The floor framing is undersized.”

He could see the project being approached piece by piece: The basement — and its full kitchen — could be a place to start. That would allow for potluck meals to begin again.

“In other words the basement could be inhabited fairly easily because there isn’t a floor loading issue there,” Sonsalla said. “Phasing it is a really strong possibility for this building.”

The first floor — previously the town offices — could potentially be rented out to a business.

“That’s where the creativity would kind of come in,” Sonsalla said. “Moving up from there, the second floor has a beautiful auditorium space so eventually it would be great to see that come back.”

The third floor was previously home to the Masons, and could be turned into a museum for the historical society.

Cost is something that Selectboard Chairwoman Delsie Hoyt says must be considered in any plans.

“We are a town of 625 people. When you look at our grand list versus Fairlee, we each look like half a town but … Fairlee has on its grand list, almost a lake and a half,” Hoyt said in a phone interview last month. “West Fairlee is not on the interstates. It’s off the beaten track, we have 22% of one lake so you’re talking about a tiny population and not the grand list that some others have.”

The last time fixing up Bean Hall was put up for vote, residents were concerned about taking out a bond to pay for it, Hoyt said. In order to make it work this time, organizers will have to explore other funding options and come up with a concrete plan to put in front of voters. She understands that people have strong memories about Bean Hall and the events they attended there.

“There are places that you have that it was always the town hall, it’s always ... something and you have great affection for your memories there, but in the process you also have to find out whether the community as it is comprised right now shares your vision for that building and it’s probably very likely is going to entail some compromises,” Hoyt said.

Hatch stressed that she is at the beginning of the process and is working on gathering community support. She plans on holding an event June 3 in West Fairlee on the town common outside Bean Hall.

“This is going to take years. This isn’t going to happen in six months or a year. It’s not going to get done all at once,” Hatch said. “It can only go so far with just a few hands. We really need to rejuvenate our community by getting people together again.”

A community gathering spot is something that West Fairlee, Hatch and Sonsalla support. The current town office space doesn’t lend itself for potlucks like Bean Hall did.

“Unfortunately the space is very small,” Hatch said. “It’s a wonderful space for our town clerk’s office … but as far as community gathering there’s no usable kitchen like there is in Bean Hall and just as far as space to host gatherings and events, it’s really not set up for it.”

The closing of Bean Hall, after more than a century at the center of town life, was so sudden, Sonsalla said.

“To lose that all at once was abrupt and I think the citizens are starting to feel a little bit of unconnectedness that you have when you don’t have a gathering place,” he said.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

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