December 31, 2007
By MEGAN JAMES
BRANDON — It was about 10 degrees inside the Brandon Town Hall one morning last week, but that didn’t stop Dennis Marden from putting in half a day’s work on the set he’s been building there for the Brandon Town Players’ upcoming production of “My Fair Lady.”
The players will perform the play this winter at Otter Valley Union High School, not on the town hall stage — besides heat, the building also lacks a fire suppression or sprinkler system, making it a safety hazard to the public. But the open space in the main level is perfect for a large-scale set-building project, and Marden, like many Brandon residents, is sick of seeing the old building sitting there, empty.
To that end, his organization, Friends of the Brandon Town Hall, is ratcheting up its efforts to restore the building. By this summer, the Friends hope to raise $72,000 for a fire suppression system, which would allow the building to open to the public six months out of the year.
And they’re making progress. Earlier this month the Vermont Arts Council awarded the organization a $20,000 cultural facilities grant; earlier this season the National Bank of Middlebury pledged a challenge grant of $7,500; and the First Brandon Bank also made a challenge grant of $7,500 over the next three years. Businesses and individuals in the Brandon area have also been generous, donating about $5,000 over the last few weeks.
Since the incorporation of the Friends in 1998, the group has raised $386,000, hired architect Jay White from Robert Williams and Associates in Pittsfield and completed a number of mostly external renovations, including the installation of marble front steps donated by the Omya quarry; exterior painting; brick masonry re-pointing; installation of a handicapped lift; and updates to the electrical system.
Still, the Friends have a long way to go. After they secure the fire-suppression system, the building will need heating, air-conditioning, and internal and mechanical renovations, among other things.
“We have more than $900,000 in upgrades to be done to the building,” said Friends president Mei Mei Brown.
The long-term goal is to complete the project by 2011, the 150th anniversary of the town hall’s original completion and the 200th anniversary of the town of Brandon.
“It’s ambitious, especially because grants are getting harder to find,” Brown said.
Constructed in 1861, the town hall was the cultural and civic center of Brandon for more than a century. Besides hosting town meeting and voting polls, the building over the years was used for square dances, theatrical productions, flea markets and movie screenings.
Friends public outreach coordinator Jon Andrews said that in researching the building’s history he found a playbill from the 1950s for a New York City theater company that held a residency in Brandon for the summer. He also uncovered movie placards advertising the screening of “The Farmer’s Daughter” in 1947.
“They even had roller-skating,” Andrews said. “So everything’s been done here.”
But in 1981, the town hall closed to the public. Brandon was struggling economically, and the costs of maintaining the old building were just too high.
“Brandon went through a pretty rough period, which is why there’s now this idea of a ‘Brandon Renaissance,’” Andrews said, referring to the restoration efforts that have boomed in the last few years throughout town. “It used to have a reputation as a rough town.”
In the past year, Brandon also saw the start of a conversion of its old high school on Seminary Street, which sat boarded up for more than 20 years, into condominiums; the sale of its old firehouse; and plans to develop the 103 acres north of town into a holistic living center.
Marden attributed much of this development to the creation of the Brandon Artists’ Guild in 1999.
“It seems like everything is starting to explode,” Marden said. “With the Artists’ Guild, people are moving into town with new ideas … There’s a lot more here for us. We don’t have to go to Rutland or Middlebury.”
In his time spent working on sets in the old building, Marden has imagined plenty of uses for the space.
“I’d love to do a big musical in there,” he said. “Children’s productions, theater workshops, movies would work in there, too. When I first moved to Vermont 25 years ago, they had a craft fair in there… and of course voting should go on there.”
Andrews shared his enthusiasm.
“It’s a great multi-purpose space, and it’s accessible because its right downtown,” he said. “Everyone should feel welcome here. It’s not an elitist space; it literally belongs to the town, to the people of Brandon. I can’t wait to have it back up and running.”