July 28, 2014

How the Old Brick Church was abandoned, and restored

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By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The boys broke into the church through a rear window.

One day after school in the fall of 1962, David Hart showed fellow eighth grader Mark Hutchins which shutter to pry open, and how to push the window ajar. The pair slithered through the opening, and dropped onto a mucky, muddy floor of the Old Brick Church basement.

“It was an adventure,” Hutchins, now 58, recalls of that day. “It was dark and gloomy and mysterious.”

The basement smelled damp and earthy. Only a little light seeped in from the windows covered by dark green shutters – shutters that would, 45 years later, be lost to a fire in the bell tower.

The boys’ eyes adjusted to the darkness. They scooted along the side of the basement where it wasn’t as muddy, and climbed the rickety, ladder-like stairs into the foyer. The floor was “crunchy” and “cushiony,” Hutchins recalls, with years of bird droppings covering it.

For 13-year-old Hutchins, that day marked the beginning of an obsession: To clean and restore a building that had been largely abandoned for more than 60 years. Hours of shoveling, sweeping, glass pane replacement; then grant writing, fundraising and construction followed. In that decade, a cadre of youth and a group of dedicated adults changed an empty Federated Church-owned structure into a town-owned community space for meetings and events.

“We’re about to do it again,” current Old Brick Church Trustee Jack Price said this week, referring to the impending restoration of the church bell tower that was lost to a fire nearly three weeks ago. The tower was struck by lightning, destroying it and the remains of the dark green shutters that had been stored in the attic during the 1960s cleanup.

“Today, (restoration) wouldn’t even be possible if it hadn’t been done then,” Price said.

The church’s past

The Old Brick Church was built in 1832 by the Calvinistic Congregational Society of Williston. Families purchased pews to help raise funds for the construction, and Williston resident Thomas Chittenden, Vermont’s first governor, owned three of them. The society renovated the church in the early 1860s and continued meeting there until 1899, when the Congregationalists joined with the Methodists. Morning services moved to the Williston Federated Church, leaving the Congregational Church vacant save infrequent evening services.

In 1939, plans were afoot to fix up the abandoned church in time for the 1941 celebration of Vermont’s sesquicentennial (150-year) anniversary of entering the Union, according to an article published that summer in The Burlington Free Press. Observer staff could not confirm if any cleanup activities took place in the following two years.

So when Hutchins and his friend entered the church that day in 1962, at least two – and more likely six – decades of neglect were before them. But the pair was not the first to explore there.

Colchester resident Sharon Roa (nee Pillsbury), 58, recalls breaking into the church with other kids just to explore in the 1960s. Williston resident Karen Shastany (nee Peterson) remembers being seven or eight and sneaking into the church with a friend to “play preacher” in the early 1950s. Williston resident Bob Bradish, who was married in the Old Brick Church in 1985, also remembers the thrill of breaking in with friends to “look around.”

But there were others that did more than look around.

Pigeons flew through the sanctuary in 1962, leaving bird droppings several inches thick in some spots on the carpets. Vandals had broken windowpanes, smashed the choir pews and carved graffiti into the balcony. Time, too, had wreaked havoc. Wallpaper sagged from the walls and ceiling in long strips.

But to Hutchins, who is now an architect of period-style and contemporary buildings in California, the sanctuary was “elegant.”

The pleading begins

In the 1960s, it was common knowledge in town that the church was “too far gone to fix up,” F. Kennon Moody wrote in an article titled “A boy with a vision.” The article about the church cleanup was published in a Methodist magazine in the 1960s. Moody, the pastor of the Williston Federated Church at the time, had dreamt of restoring the church since he’d first seen its disrepair.

“It’s one of those things where people said ‘somebody should do something, maybe not me, but somebody else,’” said Moody, 73, during a recent visit to Williston from his home in New York.

Hutchins decided he was that somebody. In the spring of 1963, Hutchins and other members of the Methodist Youth Fellowship of the Williston Federated Church mowed the church lawns, cleaned up the grounds, and lined the walk to the front of the church with pink and white petunias. In a letter Hutchins wrote to Moody in 1963, he made his case.

“So, this building suffers, until someone, who alone has the sense of duty to help, will head a group to restore or if not, will properly close the church,” Hutchins wrote. “…The Youths of the church recently restored the grounds, and will gladly do so for the building if given what little they ask for, and it is my opinion that if we don’t act now, one more landmarks will fall down and one more parts of Williston will die.”

Williston resident Cathy Yandell, now 86, was key in the church’s cleanup and restoration. Recently she said that Hutchins was instrumental in forcing teens and adults to take action.

“He was mad about that building,” Yandell said. “It’s because he worked at it so long and drove everybody crazy, we got something done.”

Cleanup

In the spring of 1964, Moody opened up the church to the youths and a series of weekend work parties followed. Resident Mary Tuthill, now 77, recalls the “wonderful kids” she worked with as a Sunday school teacher at the Federated Church. It was with that group that she showed up to the church one Saturday.

“Mark’s vision was contagious,” Tuthill said recently. “He got the rest of us excited about it.”

About eight kids, Tuthill recalls, started cleanup at the altar end of the church “and literally just started pushing as best they could with shovels and pushing stuff out.”

The youth group had not arranged for a truck to collect the refuse, Moody said recently, and quickly adults realized they might need to help guide the enthusiasm. The trustees of the Federated Church formed an adult advisory committee, with Yandell as de facto secretary. That summer, Moody moved on to his next post in New York.

Cleanup continued over eight work weekends, according to notes Yandell made at the time. About 20 adults became involved, as did roughly 30 teens and children. Grocer Wayne Larrow helped replace every broken pane of glass; each church window has 153 panes, according to Yandell’s notes.

An older Williston resident, Sylvia Warren, called Hutchins one day and asked him to meet her outside the barn behind the Warren Store. When they opened it, Hutchins remembers, he saw the original church furniture, including the pulpit, which Warren’s father had stowed securely away decades before. They were returned to the church.

In October 1964, the teen group organized the first service the Old Brick Church had seen in roughly 60 years. The Burlington Free Press published an article about the teens’ work and donations totaling roughly $650 poured in. Much of the money went toward shoring up the bell tower. Hutchins and his family moved to Plattsburgh. The following April, the teens organized another vesper service in the church.

Recognition

Hutchins’ move to New York did not sever his relationship with the Old Brick Church; his “obsession” with the church, as his mother calls it, continued.

A national organization took note. In October 1965, the American Association of State and Local History gave Hutchins an award of merit for “influencing community spirit to restore the Congregational Church.” Moody, though he’d left Williston the year prior, had nominated him.

“That you were able to communicate your dream and desires to the rest of the group and that they in turn were able to communicate the dream to the community at large is certainly no less than a minor miracle,” Moody wrote in a letter to Hutchins, after learning of the success of the first vesper service. “The important thing is not just that you have restored a beautiful and meaningful historic site in the town. The important thing is that you have perservered (sic) in a project that men for a half century have considered difficult if not down-right hopeless.”

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