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Historic Middlebury home in need of TLC

MIDDLEBURY — Stewards of the Middlebury Community House are trying to boost residents’ awareness of, and investment in, a downtown architectural jewel that is beginning to show signs of wear and tear after almost two centuries of battering from the elements.
Built in 1816 near the Congregational Church of Middlebury at the corner of Main and Seymour streets, the bright yellow Middlebury Community House remains one of the best examples of post-colonial, Federal-style architecture left in town.
It was originally built as a residence for Horatio Seymour and his family. A prominent lawyer, Seymour also served as postmaster, director of the Vermont State Bank and trustee of Middlebury College.
Seymour’s great-granddaughter, Jessica Stewart Swift and her brother, Philip Battell Stewart, gave the family home and its furnishings to “the people of Middlebury and surrounding area” in 1938.
A board of trustees, currently headed by Lynda Rheaume, oversees the property and ensures its maintenance needs. The board does this through the interest on an endowment left by Swift, occasional grants, annual dues from a boosters group and revenues from rental of the property for special functions.
“We try to have the use of the house pay for the cost of running the house,” Rheaume said during a Thursday interview at the stately home.
Rheaume lamented the rental fees — ranging from around $40 to $200 for various weddings, receptions, class reunions and other social gatherings — aren’t covering costs. That has meant periodically dipping into the Swift endowment, customarily reserved for the many capital projects the aging property needs. And dipping into the endowment — which now stands at less than $400,000 — has been particularly painful for board members in recent years, given the state of the stock market.
Meanwhile, the home is showing some signs of wear and tear that should be corrected soon, according to Rheaume. Perhaps top on the list of repairs is brickwork that helps buttress the foundation of the building. Some of the bricks are spalling — that is, they are deteriorating from the inside-out. That phenomenon can be readily seen in one of the basement storage rooms, where one of the brick facades is heavily pock-marked.
It’s a problem that trustees believe can be traced back to the building’s construction in 1816 — the “year when Mother Nature turned a cold shoulder on New England,” reads a history of the Middlebury Community House produced by the board of directors.
It was a year in which snow fell in June. The lack of sun and warm weather contributed to some softer-than-normal Addison County bricks that went into construction of the home, Rheaume theorized.
“Mr. Seymour wanted his home finished as soon as possible so all available brick was used; a buff color wash was applied to the exterior,” reads the history.
Trustees contracted with a Boston firm during the early 1970s to replicate the softer texture of the community house bricks, as randomly mixing in firmer bricks was not an option from a historical or structural perspective, officials said. The new replacement brick was worked into the Seymour Street side of the building, according to Rheaume.
“It has not held up,” Rheaume said.
Trustees want to hire a structural engineer to do an assessment of the building. Given the fact that a lot of granite stone was used for the base of the Community House, trustees are confident the building is not in danger of falling down. But the brickwork remains a concern that will have to be addressed — potentially at a cost of around $30,000, Rheaume said.
In additional, the Community House needs some exterior and interior painting, which will cost in the five figures, trustees estimate. The historic fence around the property also needs ongoing maintenance, and the home could use some new carpeting, furniture and cosmetic refurbishments inside.
Rheaume said that while the Community House would gratefully accept donations, the group is trying to raise funds through more grants, increasing its dues-paying “partners” group (now at around 150 members who each pay at least $20 in annual dues), and increasing the number of  rental functions hosted at the property.
Rheaume hopes the community members will respond with support for polishing a local jewel that deserves more visibility and use.
“The house was given to the people,” Rheaume said. “People don’t realize they can come knock on the door.”
More information about the Middlebury Community House can be found at www.middleburycommunityhouse.org.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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