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Leveling History

  • 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: 7/15/2018 12:22:22 AM
Modified: 7/15/2018 12:22:24 AM

The Woodstock Inn and Resort wants to expand, but two 19th-century houses on South Street that are part of the town’s historic district stand in the way. The inn claims the two houses, vacant for a while now, must be torn down because they’re beyond repair.

Perhaps, but whose fault is that?

The inn has owned the two-story, slate-roofed homes — modest by Woodstock standards — that sit across the street from the town’s elementary school for more than 30 years.

No doubt they’ve seen better days. Their white clapboard exteriors could use a fresh coat of paint. Broken steps, rotting wood and overgrown vines have robbed the front porches of their cozy feeling. From a window view, the interiors appear already gutted.

At 14 South St., the house that abuts the inn, a broken front window on the top floor has been boarded up. Apparently, the luxury resort — where rooms often cost $400 a night — can’t afford a new pane of glass.

I brought up the inn’s desire to dismantle the two Victorian-style houses with Matt Powers, executive director of the Woodstock History Center (formerly the Woodstock Historical Society). He called it a case of what historic preservationists refer to as “demolition by neglect.”

In a company town — and no doubt Woodstock falls into that category — it’s an effective strategy. What the inn wants, the inn usually gets.

The Woodstock Resort Corp., which owns the inn, employs more than 300 workers and pays about $720,000 a year in property taxes. The private company also owns Woodstock Country Club and 20 or so other properties in town with a combined assessed value of more than $37 million. “It’s our economic engine,” said Jeffrey Kahn, who chairs Woodstock’s Board of Village Trustees.

At a May 8 village trustees meeting, Woodstock Inn and Resort President Gary Thulander said the two houses must be removed to expand the inn’s “function space,” according to the meeting’s minutes. Thulander told trustees the expansion is needed to sustain the long-term success of the resort, the Vermont Standard reported.

After five years at the helm, Thulander left the inn last week for a job on Cape Cod. But before he departed, the five trustees agreed to write the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation on the inn’s behalf, as he had requested at the meeting.

Replacing the two houses with a “more useful, group activities facility will enhance the historical streetscape at the south end of Woodstock’s National Register District,” the trustees wrote.

“Those houses aren’t historic landmarks, they’re just old,” Kahn said when I stopped by his downtown gift shop, Unicorn.

Powers, who heads the history center, told me being part of the town’s historic district doesn’t afford the houses protection from the inn’s wrecking ball. “Obviously, they have a plan, and these buildings don’t fit into that plan,” Powers said.

The talk in town is that the inn wants to put up another building to have more space for weddings and other large gatherings. But when we talked on the phone, Courtney Lowe, the inn’s marketing director, said there are no “definite plans.”

Phil Swanson, Woodstock’s longtime town manager, told me he’s “sure there are people in town who want to save” the houses, which at one point the inn used for workforce housing.

Count Bruce Coffin in. After reading in the Standard that the two houses were in jeopardy, Coffin sent a letter to the weekly paper. “Legal ownership notwithstanding, those houses belong to the hearts and minds of Woodstock natives,” wrote Coffin, recalling the dentist Robert Woods and contractor Armand Martin, who lived in the “historic family homes” some 60 years ago.

Coffin, 76, is a retired English teacher who moved to Connecticut years ago. He still owns his grandmother’s house on Lincoln Street.

In 2005, Coffin wrote The Long Light of Those Days, a story of growing up in Woodstock when working-class families, such as his, still had a presence in the village. In other words, before Laurance S. Rockefeller took over in the 1960s.

The bulldozing of the previous inn to make room for the current monstrosity was only the beginning. In his letter to the Standard, Coffin named three other family homes that the inn turned to dust after Rockefeller bought the place — and much of the town with it.

“That’s what they do,” Coffin said. “They buy up these respectful houses then let them sit there until they fall apart. The sad thing is there’s no resistance to it.”

I’m not surprised. A lot of people in town depend on Woodstock Resort Corp. for their livelihood, or have family members who do. Others own businesses or work for entities that cater to the inn’s wealthy clientele. Speaking up isn’t good for business.

I’m happy to report the inn has a few more hoops to jump through before it can call in a demolition crew. For starters, it must get the state’s District 3 Environmental Commission to sign off.

In 2009, the inn received an Act 250 land use permit for a spa addition within the “special flood hazard area” of Kedron Brook in the same neighborhood as the two houses. Under the conditions of the permit, the inn is required to “submit future plans for demolition, relocation or rehabilitation” to the state Environmental Commission for approval.

James Duggan, of the state’s Division for Historic Preservation, recently visited the site. Over the phone, he told me the hope is the inn will “look at alternatives to demolition.”

Here’s an idea: After renovating the homes, the inn could turn them back into affordable housing for its workers.

Wouldn’t that be historic.

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




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