Owners give Vergennes landmark a makeover

VERGENNES — Early this spring, the original plan for one of the most prominent pieces of the Vergennes skyline called for a paint job.
That’s when Tim and Liz Ryan, owners of the Ryan Block, a Main Street landmark that has borne their family name since a previous generation bought the 172-year-old building in 1965, asked Cornwall’s Jonathan Hescock for cosmetic work on the cupola atop their three-story structure.
But it didn’t take too long for Hescock, the owner of Golden Ruler Construction as well as Hescock Painting, to determine one of the highest points in Vergennes needed much more, specifically better structural support — some beams were rotting — and new roofing, siding and trim.
“The whole thing was really on the way out,” Hescock said.
Instead of applying paint — which in itself would have been a challenge four stories above the pavement — Hescock and his employees spent from April 18 through the beginning of last week completely restoring the cupola’s exterior and its underpinnings.
And the Ryans spent almost $40,000 making it happen. Despite the price tag, Tim Ryan, also an owner of J.W. & D.E. Ryan Plumbing and Heating, which operates out of the Ryan Block, said he doesn’t regret cutting the checks.
“We’re the caretakers of this historic building,” Ryan said. “We want to do it right and not have to do it again.”
Liz Ryan said she agreed with her husband’s approach, and the cupola is just the latest in a series of restoration and renovation projects to the building.
Since the couple bought it in 1975, the Ryan Block’s structure has been stabilized, shop and office interiors and apartments have been upgraded, a handicap access ramp that stretches the length of the building and is adorned with flower boxes and historic lighting fixtures was added, and the exterior received a major facelift.
“Tim always says … we’re going to leave it better than we found it,” Liz Ryan said.
What the Ryans and Hescock said they felt was important for this latest improvement was that the end result resembled the original 172-year-old product, in part because of its prominence.
“It’s one of the focal points of Vergennes,” Tim Ryan said. “You drive down Route 7, and this is it. We wanted to restore it.”
Motorists heading north on the state highway can spot the cupola easily, standing square in the center of the Ryan Block’s slate roof, just west of the city’s rust-red water tower in a skyline also punctuated by a church steeple and a bell tower.
At the same time, the fourth-story outdoor project is one that is best tackled as infrequently as possible. Sets of staging had to be put in place that surrounded the cupola and not only allowed workers to install beams, siding and trim and apply paint, but also protected the sidewalks below from falling items.
Hescock and his workers lugged all their materials — including 20-foot support beams — and tools up a ladder to a first floor roof in the rear, then up an exterior stairway to the second story, and then up what he called an “internal maze” of narrow stairways in an unused portion of the building.
“Just the logistics of getting stuff up and down was quite a challenge,” Hescock said.
The difficulty of the project also informed the owners and Hescock’s choice of materials, a mix of sturdy oak trim and composite siding that should prove particularly long lasting, but even from up close looks remarkably like wood.
“It should look the exact same, just with different materials,” Hescock said.
Hescock brought extra help aboard to haul items to the top of the Ryan Block, and those workers got a bonus of enjoying the panoramic view from the windows built into all four sides, as well as seeing the building’s interior. For years it was the Franklin House Hotel, and the path to the cupola leads past a long-unused ballroom and employee quarters.
Workers also saw the many signatures and initials of former Vergennes residents on the interior window trim, some carved into the wood and some written on its surface. Samples include “Willie Larrow 7/4/85” (that would be 1885) and “William Dalrymple 1886.”
“A lot of local high schoolers and college students have an affinity for the space now,” Hescock said.
All involved believe the finished project, like the signatures that attest to the Ryan Block’s history, should stand the test of time.
“I’m feeling that it’s going to be the last thing standing on this building, possibly,” Hescock said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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