July 29, 2014

Languishing Brennan Barn finds community voice

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Brennan Barn, photographed on Oct. 13, has benefitted from cleanup efforts conducted by a group of local residents and Williston Boy Scout Troop 692. Scout Ben Cotton is incorporating the Brennan Barn restoration project into his eighth grade challenge at Williston Central School. (Observer photo by Luke Baynes)

By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

As Williston prepares to make history next year by celebrating its 250th anniversary, a group of local residents are making strides to extend the lifespan of Brennan Barn, a historic structure nearly as old as the town itself.

“We want to bring this barn back to life,” Williston resident Tom Hark said Monday. “We’d like to do that as part of the 250th anniversary for the town … and we want to give it real purpose again. At one point, that barn was the center of a farm that farmed 130 acres in town, and it was its own economic engine there and it had real purpose.”

Hark was one of six Willistonians who appeared before the Selectboard on Monday to advocate for the salvation of the decaying Brennan Barn, located on Mountain View Road near the Williston Community Gardens. Potential uses for the early 19th century structure proposed by Hark include storing municipal trucks and equipment, creating an indoor farmers’ market or establishing a meeting place for Boy and Girl Scout troops or other community groups.

Also addressing the Selectboard was Kristen Littlefield, a nearby Brennan Woods resident who initiated the restoration project.

“I think we have a finite number of historic structures left in Williston. We have very few left,” Littlefield said. “If this tumbles down and is gone, to me that’s tragic, because it is a piece of Williston’s history.”

LIttlefield added: “I’ve driven past it every day for 12 years, and it bothered me every day for 12 years to see it just slowly deteriorate. So I think the barn needs a voice, and I think we are the voice.”

Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig, who has lived in Williston since 1966, reminisced about the barn’s better days.

“I remember fondly this barn when my kids were in the Little League and it was used as a storage space for equipment, in the simpler days when you didn’t need to worry about people stealing things,” Macaig said. “I also remember Jim Brennan very well, who donated the land and the barn.”

Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire admitted that the barn narrowly survived the budgetary equivalent of death row.

“I’m a little embarrassed to say, but we budgeted some money (approximately $30,000) to tear it down. But that was quite a few years ago. We haven’t spent that money, because we like the barn,” McGuire said. “So we have some money, and it doesn’t have to be used for demolition. It has to be used for the barn, but it doesn’t have to be used for demolition.”

Selectboard member Debbie Ingram praised the efforts of the informal Brennan Barn group, which has already made restorative progress with a cleanup project that removed brush and rotting trees around the barn on Oct. 13.

“I really commend you for taking the initiative to do this. Not being any kind of official board or anything, I really appreciate you as citizens and residents of the town taking this on yourself and coming to us with it,” Ingram said.

Selectboard Deputy Chairman Jeff Fehrs, while also thanking the residents for their work, cautioned that the barn might still need to be torn down if it is found to be economically unfeasible to restore it.

“Have we really made the decision it’s worth saving?” Fehrs asked. “I’m not trying to be negative, I’m not trying to slow the process down, but I want to make sure that I have all the information and we feel comfortable with moving ahead.”

Although a technical assistance report by historic barn expert Jan Lewandoski estimates the cost of the Brennan Barn restoration to be in the neighborhood of $100,000, Williston Director of Public Works Bruce Hoar suggested that an assessment by a structural engineer will be required before proceeding with any restorative work.

“I’ve walked that whole structure underneath, and I wouldn’t go in there without a hardhat on,” Hoar said. “There is a lot of rotting, so there are a lot of things that we really need to get a structural engineer to take a look at from the foundation up and really start to put together what it’s going to cost in the long run.”

Hark was undeterred, stating that he and his fellow citizens are committed to gradually seeing the project through to its conclusion, whether it proves to be practical or not.

“We’re just taking this one step at a time,” Hark said. “We hope we can save it, but we’re realists and we also realize that it may not come together … and as you think of questions, that’s what we want to hear, so we can add it to our list of answers.”

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