SHOREHAM — Newton Academy, the state’s oldest standing secondary school building and the focus of a major renovation effort by the town of Shoreham, was destroyed by a fire early Wednesday morning.
Local firefighters believe a lightening strike triggered the blaze, which quickly consumed the town-owned building that hosted a pre-school and medical clinic.
While no one was hurt, the fire tragically erased a 200-year-old structure that was being renovated for broader use as a community center and potentially as host of new town offices. A Newton Academy Restoration Corporation had successfully landed tens of thousands of dollars in grants and donations that had already paid for a new roof on the building. Project organizers had raised additional funds that were to be applied to a second phase of the project, keying on foundation and drainage improvements. Boosters had hoped to hold a community celebration in Newton Academy later this year to officially celebrate its 200th birthday.
But those dreams and all of the recent upgrades were destroyed in just a few hours during Wednesday’s lightning storm that also knocked out power for hundreds of Addison County residents.
Leslie Goodrich was among the many Shoreham residents who gazed, in almost disbelief, at the remnants of the community building into which so many townspeople had invested time, resources and aspirations. She noted the Newton Academy fire is just the latest in a series of setbacks the Shoreham community has suffered thus far in 2010. First there was the tragic death of firefighter Peter Coe while assisting a stranded motorist; then tireless civic volunteer Wilson MacIntire — a leader in the Newton Academy restoration effort — passed away last month. Now the academy building has burned.
Goodrich noted the many older townspeople had been schooled in Newton Academy and many young children and medical patients continued to be served there.
“There is a lot gone here,” Goodrich said as she surveyed the building’s wreckage. “It’s more than just a building that the town lost.”
Jonathan Ives, who resides off School Street diagonally from the academy, called in the fire soon after being awoken at around 1 a.m. on Wednesday by two loud lightening strikes.
“There were two heavy strikes, they seemed to be close by,” said Ives, who then detected a “crackling” sound from outside his window.
He looked outside and saw fire emanating from the Newton Academy building. Ives immediately called 911 and went to the scene to see if he could help. By then, however, the structure was almost fully engulfed.
Shoreham Fire Chief Jeff Treadway and his crew responded quickly to the scene, but the building was too far gone to salvage.
“The upstairs was fully involved, from one end to the other,” Treadway said. Officials believe a lightening strike hit the building’s propane heating system, setting off a blaze that spread quickly throughout the old structure.
Firefighters from Orwell, Cornwall, Whiting and Bridport helped put out the fire, while Vergennes Fire Department provided a critical ladder truck. Working in unison, the firefighters put out the blaze and kept it from spreading to the adjacent Shoreham Elementary School, where classes were cancelled for the day.
While he was fighting the fire, Treadway felt a sense of loss at seeing the loss of the historic community asset. Some of the firefighters had attended school there.
“We had just gotten around to fixing it,” Treadway said. “It had been standing there for 200 years and it finally gets hit.”
Shoreham Zoning Administrator Phil Kivlin was born in his hometown and attended the first grade at Newton Academy. His mom had taught there.
“It is definitely a shock,” Kivlin said. “A lot of local energy went into the restoration effort. There are two rent-paying businesses that have been totally displaced.”
Those businesses are the Shorewell Clinic and the Shoreham Preschool. Dr. Allan Curtiss of the Shorewell Medical Clinic said all of the businesses furnishings, supplies, equipment and medical records were lost in the fire. As the Addison Independent went to press, Curtiss was working to re-establish the clinic somewhere else — preferably in Shoreham.
“There was nothing left to salvage in any way, shape or form,” Curtiss said of the clinic’s infrastructure, noting the building almost burned 10 years ago due to an electrical fire.
“I suppose it has had at least nine lives,” Curtiss said of the building, in which Shorewell Clinic had been operating for 20 years.
Shoreham Selectman Paul Saenger said efforts are under way to get some short-term space for the pre-school, perhaps in the elementary school.
Saenger said the building was a total loss, and he was scheduled to meet on Wednesday with an insurance adjuster and a structural engineer to determine potential compensation and what to do with the remnants of the academy building.
He did not expect a historically accurate restoration of the Newton Academy, like there was of the Ferrisburgh Grange Hall, which burned in 2005. In Shoreham, the town’s insurance policy covered recent improvements to the academy building and not its total replacement value, according to Saenger. The intent was to ramp up insurance coverage as more improvements were made to the building, he said.
Officials said they expected the academy site would be cleared very quickly if a structural engineer determined the remaining shell of the building could not be salvaged. Saenger explained the debris, if left standing too long, could prove a danger and a liability — especially considering the proximity of the academy site to the elementary school.
Saenger said it is too soon to tell how the loss of Newton Academy will affect the debate over new town offices. Town officials and residents will need to determine whether a replacement structure can or should be built at the academy site, how to use any insurance settlement funds, and what can be done with any remaining Newton Academy restoration funds.
Newton Academy Restoration Corp. member Sue MacIntire said she’d like to see a new building erected at the academy site.
“My dream is, like the Ferrisburgh town hall, to see it rise again,” MacIntire said, alluding to the Ferrisburgh Grange Hall. “It was always an anchor for the common and a beautiful building.”
MacIntire is happy her late husband was spared from seeing the destruction of the building he worked so hard to preserve.
“He would have been devastated,” MacIntire said. “The last two years of his life were spent trying to get this building restored as a community center for everybody in town.”
Selectwoman Karen Shackett also found herself Wednesday morning looking solemnly at the charred profile of a building that had been an important part of Shoreham’s landscape for the past two centuries.
She and other town officials had taken a tour of Newton Academy less than 24 hours earlier to help plan the next phase of renovations. They had marveled at the structure’s massive beams and other historical architectural flourishes.
All of a sudden, that history was gone — but not forgotten.
“I’m speechless,” Shackett said. “I really don’t know what to say. I can’t believe it.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.