BERLIN - The town may have lost its 100-year-old train station to a fire in December, but a group working to preserve another historic building hopes its efforts will not be in vain.
Friends of the Worthington Meeting House, a nonprofit group formed by members of the Berlin Historical Society, is raising funds to complete its restoration and reuse. The building is at 723 Worthington Ridge.
The group recently had a Statement of Needs drafted by Jack Healy, director of public works and town engineer, and approved by the Public Building Commission.
“We see (the house) as a jewel of the community,” said Lorraine Stub, who started the group in 2005 as a way to raise money through grants and tax-deductible donations “I believe in maintaining our history. It gives us a sense of place.”
The house, built in 1774 after the Congregational church in town split into two factions, has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a key landmark in Berlin’s Worthington Ridge Historic District, serving as a church until 1850, when a new one was built down the road.
The building was and continued to serve as Town Hall after the new church’s construction, until 1907 when the town bought Brandegee Hall and moved town offices there.
After extensive redesigns, the building became the four-room, two-grades-per-classroom Worthington School until 1957, when the town repurposed the building for the Board of Education.
The town then consolidated offices to include hall offices, the Board of Education and Police Department at the Art B. Powers complex, at 240 Kensington Road, in 1974, and the house has been vacant since. Ideas were proposed to move Town Hall back to the house but the town thought it would be inefficient to move Town Hall away from the rest of the public buildings.
It stands boarded up for preservation, with much of its original structure intact, including wooden beams made of chestnut wood, trusses in the attic with the names of school children who climbed there, original panes of glass and a beam and wall section charred in an 1848 fire.
“This is dates back to before the Revolutionary War,” said Pam Pethigal, another member of the Historical Society and the Friends group. “Imagine the conversations that went on here. If these walls could talk …”
With the approval of the Statement of Needs, the group can move forward with finding a qualified architect to have design and development plans created for the restoration and renovation of the house, as part of the Request for Qualified Architects process.
This latest proposal is not the first attempt to rehab the building.
In 2004, the building was stabilized and exterior restored with funding from a $610,000 bond approved by the Town Council. The project came in under budget $78,000.00.
In 2009, utility work was completed, funded by a matching grant from the Connecticut Commission on Tourism and the Arts, which brought electric and fire protection lines into the building. Schematic designs were made, estimating the project cost at $1.2 million. However, without design and development plans to procure a qualified architect, further grant money hasn’t been applied for and town officials have said they would like to invest as little money in the project as possible, said Stub.
The group got a $10,000 grant from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. A second $10,000 grant was obtained by the Berlin Historic District Commission, which oversees the historic district in which the house is located, from the State Preservation Office.
In addition to the $35,168.57 balance in the Worthington Meeting House account, these funds would be used to find the qualified architect.
Town Council members have expressed interest in going forward with the project, but concern over funding sources has stalled it
“I’m not opposed to the meeting house, but the council just declined spending money for a new police station, because we didn’t have the money,” said Councilor Rachel Rochette during a Dec. 20 meeting when the Statement of Needs was requested. “I would just like to proceed with caution.”
“I would like to see us move forward because it’s a time sensitive issue. If we don’t, at least, invest enough to protect that building, we should decide soon that we’re going to eliminate the building, either one or the other because it’s been put off for so long.” said Councilor Charles Paonessa in the same meeting. “I think investing enough to investigate that and have an architect, give us the drawings so we can pursue budgets would be a good investment because the Historic District is an important part of our community. That’s a big part of our history sitting there. If we don’t protect it we’re going to lose it.”
“We’re very much in favor of the house,” said Mayor Mark Kaczynski. “But funding is certainly an issue.”
In the recent Statement of Needs, a complete remodeling of the basement to include meeting room and workroom space, in addition to storage, utility rooms and bathrooms. On the main floor, the needs suggest museum space. On the top floor, a community space for art shows, concerts, lectures and programs, available for use by town organizations for meetings and other local events is recommended.
Part of the advocacy for the restoration of the house, is its potential use as a museum for the Berlin Historical Society, which is currently using the original Peck Library, another historical building, but running out of space there.
During the Public Commission meeting on Thursday, Dec. 12 in which the statement of needs was approved, concerns on parking and bringing the building up to code was primarily discussed since it had been a few years since the project has been visited.
With the timeline for using the grants, the PBC suggested immediacy with the project, as putting the items out to bid will take 30 days.
For those interested in getting involved of the Friends of the Worthington Meeting House and the restoration project contact Lorraine Stub LStub@comcast.net.
Charles Paullin can be reached at 860-801-5074 or firstname.lastname@example.org.