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New Life for Bradford’s Old Church

  • Old Church Theater board members Paul Hunt, left, and Jim Heidenreich, right, remove lights from the ceiling of the theater in Bradford, Vt., while preparing to move to a temporary space across town Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. Since it was replaced by the new Congregational Church building in the mid-1870s, the building was used as a town meeting space, an opera house, an Oddfellows hall, a movie theater, and a community theater. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Back stage in The Old Church Theater in Bradford, Vt., the walls show signs of the building's general state of disrepair Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. The structure's heaving foundation and rot caused by runoff from a nearby hill are the most pressing issues that have forced the community theater to raise funds for renovations. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jim Heidenreich, of Topsham, stands among the timbers above the house of the Old Church Theater in Bradford, Vt., Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The Old Church theater will move across town, into the location of the former Upper Valley Press, for three years, during which the board hopes to renovate and possibly move the former church. The structure is suffering from a heaving foundation, rot and deferred maintenance. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jim Heidenreich, of Topsham, exits the Old Church Theater in Bradford, Vt., where he sits on the board Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. "You'd be surprised how many people drive by and never know it's back there," said Paul Hunt, Heidenreich's fellow trustee of the theater's location set back from the view of the road. "My dream, I'd like to see it out on (Route) 5," he said of his hopes to have the building moved to a new site. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, November 03, 2017

The former Congregational Church on Main Street in Bradford, Vt., has spent more of its 224 years as a secular gathering place than as a house of worship.

It has served the town as a movie theater and as a meeting hall, and for most of the past 40 years has been a hub for community theater in the Waits River Valley. An untold number of visitors have walked across its worn wooden floors.

Now, members of the small community theater company that has staged plays there since the mid-1980s plan to ask those visitors to help repair and renovate Bradford’s oldest public building so it can remain a community gathering spot.

“As we look around for grants and donations, we are hoping that there is a fair amount of affection for the building,” Jim Heidenreich, a charter member of Old Church Theater, said on Monday. “If we were to do it right, then we’re probably talking about $400,000, perhaps more than that. Four years ago, we bit the bullet and revamped our exit lighting and electrical capacity, but that was a Band-aid.”

While the building undergoes major surgery over the next three years, the troupe will stage its 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons two miles away on Waits River Road, in a complex also containing the Bradford Veterinary Clinic and the Orange East Senior Center.

The most immediate needs for the church include replacing the foundation and basement, where drainage has been a problem for years, and rebuilding the lower wall of the church’s south side, which doesn’t quite square up with the foundation.

Other goals include improving access for disabled people and installing a heating system — the better for other community groups to use the building for weddings and cultural events beyond the theater’s May-to-October season, which will remain the same for now.

“It came to a head this year, when we found a gap between the building and the foundation that had been covered by vinyl siding,” Paul Hunt, a member of the Old Church board of directors, said this week. “When we finally got in there and looked at it, we said, ‘Whoa! This is so bad, it’s become hazardous.’ We had to do something.”

Hunt added that the group began talking about a makeover more than 10 years ago. While hunting for temporary space to stage the plays, they saw a variety of prospects fall through, including the multipurpose theater at Oxbow High School and the auditorium of the former Bradford Academy, both of which lacked space for rehearsals and storage.

This spring, the nonprofit Bradford Community Development Corp., (BCDC) offered to upgrade the vacant space in the Waits River Road complex for the troupe’s use.

“We’d put off developing it for a variety of reasons,” Babette Scribner, the BCDC’s executive director, said on Thursday. “Then it all sort of fell into place. They came down and said, ‘Yes: We can make this work.’ ”

The theater company’s track record of working to keep the program running impressed the development corporation’s leadership. In addition to renting the interim space, the BCDC has been helping Old Church find grant money and approach donors. The troupe currently is in the running for a historic preservation grant of $20,000 from the state of Vermont, which Old Church would have to raise money to match.

Cory LaPlante, a member of the BCDC board of directors, has been meeting with contractors and state officials to come up with estimates for the renovation, Scribner said.

Old Church has “a very good reputation,” she added. “Everything we’ve heard from people is that they make it possible for as many people as possible to participate in a variety of ways. … It’s great to see so many people involved. It makes everybody else want to do more.

“A big part of our mission is what we can do for Bradford that’s going to have a lasting effect. We believe in downtowns. We believe in maintaining old buildings. We believe there’s wide support for keeping the theater group in Bradford. They’ve done a great job.”

The nonprofit troupe’s volunteers are working with a structure that began life as a Congregational Church on Bradford’s Upper Plain in the late 1700s. According to town historian Larry Coffin, the parishioners moved their church to Main Street in 1836, and continued to worship there until erecting a new structure in 1876.

Over the ensuing decades, during which the old church was moved back and forth a couple of times, townspeople used it for Bradford Academy’s school plays and for concerts.

“In 1921, it became the Colonial Theater, where they showed silent films,” Coffin said. “I’ve spoken with musicians who played live music that went with the movies. When D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation came out, it played to overflow crowds, with a huge orchestra. And during the Depression and World War II, especially, that’s where people went. You could lose yourself in Hollywood’s ‘best.’ ”

After the movie theater closed in 1948, Coffin said, the old church served as the home base of the local Odd Fellows order. Parishioners of the Congregational Church continued to use the old church for rummage sales, and it served briefly as a youth center before the Bradford Repertory Theater moved in in the mid-1970s. While that venture folded less than a decade later, former Bradford Rep player Dominique Bulfair and her friend Mary Alice Klammer rented the building from the neighboring Congregational Church, paid to upgrade the wiring and other utilities and recruited theater enthusiasts, according to a history that Jim Heidenreich wrote in 2013.

Heidenreich and his wife, Gloria, now the board president, were among the alumni from the Bradford Rep, and were quick to join the new group.

“In our first production, I was in Finian’s Rainbow,” Jim Heidenreich recalled. “I got in even though I couldn’t sing very well.”

In 1999, Paul Hunt answered an audition notice in the Valley News and wound up playing the rich, stubborn main character Matthew Perry in Old Church’s production of the screwball comedy A Little Murder Never Hurt Anybody.

“The show did very well; it was standing room only one night,” Hunt recalled. “From then on, I was hooked.”

Hunt, like Heidenreich, soon discovered that membership in the company meant playing behind-the-scenes roles as much as those in the spotlight.

“I’m sort of a technical person and they found a lot of uses for me,” Hunt said. “But there was a lot I learned on the fly. I went to a Northern Stage workshop to learn about erecting sets, and I picked up the knowledge about operating lights. This happens a lot in community theater. We do it all. When people come in, we put them to work right away.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.