Fixes eyed for historic powerhouse structure in Middlebury

MIDDLEBURY — Preserving one’s history can come at a cost, and Middlebury officials are finding out that stabilizing the remnants of the historic powerhouse near the Otter Creek Falls could cost a pretty penny.
The Middlebury Area Land Trust gave the deteriorating stone structure to the town a few years ago. The Middlebury selectboard formed a citizens’ committee to take stock in the landmark, which now consists of four stone walls. The town commissioned a study of the structure and what it would take to stabilize it.
That study, performed by Knight Consulting Engineers Inc., lays out several options to safeguard the old powerhouse, ranging from removing vegetation within it for around $10,000, to disassembling and reconstructing the walls at a potential cost of $500,000. Adopting most of the options could produce a project just south of $1 million.
“The walls are collapsing; the mortar is pretty much worthless, at this point,” Martin Hain of Knight Consulting told the selectboard on Tuesday.
Making future repairs more delicate and complex is the potential that some hazardous material might be lingering in the vicinity of the powerhouse site.
Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay noted that Powerhouse Committee member Tobias Woodard brought forward the possibility that the former gasworks on the property or other uses associated with the production of wool, or both, might have contaminated the site.
As a result, project Manager David Hallam has contacted the Vermont Department of Conservation for possible assistance in commissioning a “brownfields” assessment of the powerhouse property and environs. It is only after that assessment that the town will be able to reliably weigh options to stabilize the powerhouse structure for future generations.
It is a site that has been home to various businesses since 1811, when it was host to a cotton sheeting and yarn operation. Wool was carded there from 1811-1822, according to town archives. The Cutter Marble Factory ran there from 1882-1885, and a box factory operated circa 1885. The mill, gashouse, gasholder, along with 13 other buildings in the town’s business district were destroyed by a massive fire on Nov. 22, 1891.
The remnants of the mill were re-purposed after the fire to serve as the wheelhouse for the nearby Brandon Italian Marble Works from 1898-1909. It continued to serve as the wheelhouse for the nearby Vermont Marble Co. from 1909-1931. The Central Vermont Service Corp. owned the site from 1938-1975.
The current structure is approximately 25 feet high.
Knight Consulting presented a menu of possible rehab options for the structure, including:
•  A deep re-point of existing building walls, for $300,000.
•  Replacing a missing portion of the west building wall, $50,000.
•  Improving drainage at floor level inside the building walls, $50,000.
•  Installing a metal cap on the north, west and south building walls, $20,000.
•  Installing a new wood roof on the existing building walls, $30,000.
•  Installing a new wood roof on an interior steel frame, $100,000.
•  Installing swale improvements on the east side of the structure, $15,000.
•  Putting in a temporary cofferdam to implement some of the above upgrades, $150,000.
“These are rough estimates,” Hain told the board. “It’s expensive to do any repointing and reassembly, mainly due to the proximity (of the powerhouse) to the river.”
Hain noted a project will need to get permit approval from as many as four sources, depending on the complexity of the project. The town, Army Corps of Engineers, Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and Vermont Division of Historic Preservation may all have to weigh in on a project, according to Hain.
While town officials decide what they want to do, some fencing will be extended to stem public access to the powerhouse, which  is in no condition to accommodate visits. That fencing will be installed by late October or early November, according to Hallam.
“This is our first step to get a handle on what we are looking at,” Ramsay said of the powerhouse property.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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