April 17, 2014

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Part two of a two-part series

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

It was the only speeding ticket Cathy Yandell had received in 30 years.

The Williston resident was rushing to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development regional office in Manchester in April 1973. Five copies of a grant application were due. The grant, if awarded, would generate about $54,000 – roughly $250,000 in today’s dollars – to help restore the Old Brick Church.

Yandell, now 86, wouldn’t find out for several months that the speeding ticket she got that day in her haste hadn’t been worth the trouble.

The buildup to that request for federal money had been a decade in the making. The Congregational Church, as it was widely known then, had been abandoned in 1899. In 1963, teens in the Methodist Youth Fellowship of the Williston Federated Church – supported by a core group of adults and children – began to clean the building in hopes it would be restored as a place for community meetings. Teen Mark Hutchins “worked at his idea, somewhat like a terrier with a bone,” Yandell wrote in a document summarizing the project for the Williston Historical Society. By fall 1964, the building was sufficiently cleaned for a teen-organized vesper service; a second service was held the next spring.

Federal recognition

The Williston Historical Society’s thick file of documents and correspondence on the cleanup and restoration of the Old Brick Church is silent on the years 1966-1971. Yandell, however, doesn’t recall there being a break in efforts to get full restoration underway.

In the 1978 document summarizing the restoration efforts, Yandell wrote that “a period of searching” for funding followed the initial cleanup. By 1970, she wrote, it appeared funds for the nation’s bicentennial might be available through the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. To qualify for the former, a structure needed to be listed on the National Register for Historic Places; to qualify for the latter, a structure needed to be owned by a public entity, which the Williston Federated Church, the building’s owner, was not.

The Federated Church Trustees sold the church to the Town of Williston in May 1972 for $10 on condition that renovations toward maintaining the building as an historic site “be substantially completed or underway within three (3) years,” according to the original sale agreement. In 1973, the building was accepted onto the National Register for Historic Places.

The ‘eighth grader’ persists

In the early 1970s, Mark Hutchins, the 13-year-old boy who had so passionately worked to get his peers and adults to clean up the church the decade before, remained involved. Now in his mid-twenties, Hutchins became the president and chair of the board of trustees of the Vermont Foundation for Historic Preservation. He and the Williston restoration committee didn’t always see eye to eye.

In an undated letter to Yandell, believed to be written in 1973, Hutchins alleged that the Williston committee had not seriously considered his ideas at a recent meeting; Yandell replied that Hutchins’ conviction “does not alter the fact that there may be plans that the majority will feel are superior to yours.”

Still Hutchins persisted in supporting its preservation. The following January, Hutchins wrote to the Williston Board of Selectmen on the eve of a discussion on the topic; the church merited preservation, Hutchins wrote, for architectural and historical reasons, but also because of the town’s “considerable affection” for the building.

Town buy-in

The month before Yandell rushed to Manchester, Williston residents at town meeting approved $500 for professional construction estimates for the church restoration. In a special meeting in May that same year, town residents voted to support a nearly $27,000 matching grant if the HUD money came through.

It didn’t. The town, Yandell wrote in a letter dated August 1973, was “generally disgusted over our failure with HUD.”

Support of the project was not uniform in town, either, Yandell said recently.

“People said we needed another garage in town, ‘and that’s where we want to put it,’” Yandell said, quoting restoration opponents.

A letter Yandell wrote in March 1974 to Robert Sincerbeaux, president of Eva Gebhard-Gourgaud Foundation, further details the struggle to secure town monies for the project. The foundation was interested in funding bell tower restoration if the town committed to the larger restoration work. (In time, the foundation gave $4,000 for that work.)

After a “two-hour wrangle” at town meeting in 1974, Yandell wrote to Sincerbeaux, Williston residents voted to approve $44,000 on renovation work “only to have some non-residents get a petition out the following day to recall a meeting to reconsider the question.”

“That special meeting will come in May and we’ll probably be up all night,” Yandell wrote. “There’s a large number of semi-transient IBM intelligentsia who don’t want the taxes and a large number of historic-minded esthetes who are willing – and want the building saved and used – poor building in the middle!”

The effort to reconsider the vote failed. The muddy, mucky basement was renovated – a kitchen, meeting space, and bathrooms were added, as were stairs and an additional building entrance. Federal historic preservation money – $28,850 – came through in 1977 to restore the church sanctuary.

Current restoration

Current Old Brick Church Trustee Jack Price said there’s a reason many people don’t know the story of the original restoration of the Old Brick Church.

“A generation or two goes by and all the history fades,” Price said. “You don’t know who those people were who were mainstream, central to the town, they are just erased. … (The buildings) just become town buildings without a past.”

The selection process has begun for an architect and structural engineer to restore the bell tower, according to Neil Boyden, public works director. The tower was destroyed in a June 2 fire after lightning struck. The annual Old Brick Church Sunday service in honor of the Fourth of July will not be held there this weekend since the building is closed for repair.

Price said some townspeople are “desperate” to get the church back to the way it was before the fire. After the original restoration work decades ago, Price said, the church became “almost the central landmark” in town.

“And it could have gone quickly the other way,” he added, given the decades of neglect the building had suffered.

 

“Corrections”

 

Based on a town report, we reported erroneously the year the Williston Federated Church sold the Old Brick Church to the Town of Williston. The deed on file at the Town Clerk’s Office indicates ownership was transferred in 1972.

The Thomas Chittenden who owned pews in the church when it was constructed in 1832 could not have been Vermont’s first governor; Gov. Thomas Chittenden died in 1797. The Thomas Chittenden who owned pews may have been the governor’s grandson.

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