A fond farewell to a crumbling old friend, workers say goodbye to municipal building
MIDDLEBURY — Generations of Middlebury municipal workers have yearned for an upgrade from the dank, dreary and deficient offices in which they have toiled for the past 60 years.
They’re now getting their wish, though some veteran staff members admitted they’ll each be leaving a small piece of themselves at 94 Main St. as they settle this week into the new municipal building located just a stone’s throw away. The old town office building and gym will soon be demolished and removed, to be replaced with a public park.
Plans call for the old building to be emptied by April 4. Souvenir hunters — or those looking for bargains on some used office furnishings — can come to the building on Sunday, April 3, from 9 a.m. to noon, to make an offer. The new town offices will be open for business at 77 Main St. on Monday, April 4.
“It hasn’t really hit me yet,” Beth Dow, assistant to Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay, said on Wednesday as she packed up a big chunk of the community’s history for relocation to the new building.
BETH DOW, ASSISTANT to the town manager for Middlebury, packs up her office last Wednesday afternoon. Dow has worked in the old building since 1972 and will miss aspects of 94 Main St. as she transitions to the new offices at 77 Main St. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
“It’s been hard,” she added, visibly moved by the move. “There have been good times and there have been bad times and stressful times. But it has been a huge part of my life.”
Dow and her colleagues had sweated it out — or shivered it out — according to the whims of an antiquated steam-heat system in the bowels of the municipal building complex. That clunky system burned through a lot of taxpayer dollars through the years, while alternating office temperatures somewhere between downtown Hanoi and the North Pole within intervals of about 15 minutes. This scribe also got an ample taste of the Middlebury town offices’ shake-and-bake thermostat during a quarter-century of covering selectboard meetings.
Dow began working at the old municipal building back in 1972 as assistant town clerk. She would spend the ensuing four decades working in a variety of departments in the salvaged structure, including the recreation, listing and planning offices. She’ll be forever nostalgic about where she’s been, but looks forward to settling in her new office with modern conveniences.
“I am excited about (the new building),” Dow said. “There are going to be so many changes we can’t even imagine yet — the logistics of getting used to where everybody is; we’re kind of used to our pattern in here. It’s going to be a huge learning curve when we first move in. But it’ll be clean, bright, modern, with beautiful views.”
It was back in 1956 that town employees moved into 94 Main St., which longtime residents recall as the former Middlebury High School building. The high school (built in 1911) had burned in a fire, but the community was able to salvage and repair enough of the structure and adjacent gymnasium to accommodate community events and municipal workers.
BOXES LINE THE hallway of the old Middlebury municipal building last Wednesday before they were moved down the street to the new office building, which will be open for business on April 4. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
While the facility served its purpose through the years, the signs of wear and tear were becoming impossible to ignore. Deficiencies included poorly configured space; cracks in the structural foundation; degrading brick mortar; exposed external wiring and cables; a lack of access for disabled visitors; cracks in entrance staircases; missing ceiling tiles, including a collapsed ceiling in the basement; a complete lack of a fire-suppression sprinkler system; outdated electrical, plumbing and mechanical systems; inadequate insulation; and energy-inefficient, single-pane windows.
Voters in 2014 supported a plan to build a new, 9,400-square-foot town office building at 77 Main St. and a new, 11,400-square-foot recreation facility off Creek Road. Middlebury College agreed to underwrite $4.5 million of the construction costs in return for the current municipal building/gym site at 94 Main St. and another town-owned parcel at 6 Cross St. The college will convert the 94 Main St. site into a park.
It should be noted that the plan was no slam-dunk. Many residents held fast to the belief the town should renovate or replace its municipal complex at its present location.
LIKE A SECOND HOME
Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay and her predecessor, Bill Finger, put a lot of effort into finding an upgrade to 94 Main St. And while that upgrade was finally in plain sight on Wednesday, Ramsay — still typing away on her computer even as the objects around her vanished like grains of sand through an hourglass — could not help but think of what had been.
“It’s kind of hard to see all of the life coming out of this building, gradually boxing everything up,” said Ramsay, whose 12-year tenure with Middlebury was divided into two stints. “It’s really strange.
“There are a lot of things that I’ve seen, a lot of work that I did during the early 2000s that I saw and said, ‘I forgot all about that,’” Ramsay added. “There has been a lot of reminiscing.”
Her old office empties into the municipal building’s largest conference room, where less than 24 hours earlier, the town selectboard had held its final regular meeting.
MIDDLEBURY TOWN CLERK Ann Webster helped move the historic archives from her longtime office in the
municipal building last week to her new one just down the street. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
“That was an emotional moment,” she confessed.
Ramsay noted she and her colleagues spent most of their waking moments at 94 Main St.
“It was like a second home,” she said. “When you spend so much time here and get used to the creaks, the heat … But I’m looking forward to the new space.”
Middlebury Town Clerk Ann Webster’s office was its usual beehive of activity on Wednesday. But it was not due to the customary swarm of visitors seeking copies of birth certificates, land records or property transfers. The commotion on this day was caused by workers dutifully loading boxes of bound books and other town archives — some dating back more than 200 years — which they carefully placed on dollies for the short trek to 77 Main St. There, they will resume their historic slumber in another, more grand repository.
A wicker basket of lonely peppermint wheels enticed no visitors this day as the town clerk’s office melted away into four nondescript walls and a couple of stodgy desks.
The central nervous system of town government was suddenly on life support, pending a transplant into a more vigorous host.
Webster was among those shedding no tears about placing the old town office building in her rearview mirror. She worked at 94 Main St. for 15 years.
“I think I’m one of those odd ones,” she said of her attitude toward the old building. “I’ve loved having my memories, and I think in the future I will love seeing a park here — thinking, ‘Oh yeah, I remember when.’ But I do tend to move on from things. I am looking forward to the change and going into the new space. This building has really felt pretty toxic.”
Her fondest memories of the old place date back to her childhood days.
Born and raised in Middlebury, Webster attended St. Mary’s School, and recalled how she and her classmates staged their St. Patrick’s Day plays at the town gym. She also participated in some community roller skating nights at the gym, as well as occasional dances during the 1960s.
“I think I had my first date there,” Webster said with a smile. “I think it was a square dance.”
While she and her colleagues will need to grow accustomed to their new surroundings, Webster is confident that can happen in short order.
The transition will force some changes in how Middlebury residents have been voting and meeting for more than a half-century.
Used to be that Webster and her staff would allow for early voting in the clerk’s office and then walk down the hall to the gym to open the polls on Election Day. And of course the gym has historically hosted Middlebury’s annual town meeting.
“It won’t be as easy as running back up to the office to get something,” Webster said of the ease in fetching documents or supplies while voting is in process. “We’ll have to be more organized.”
So town officials will now have to decide where future elections and town meetings will be held. Their options will likely include the new recreation facility or one of the local public schools.
Middlebury Town Treasurer Jackie Sullivan was also cleaning out her office on Wednesday.
“I can’t believe what we keep finding, stuff we held on for years that we probably should have gotten rid of 10 years ago,” she said of the office sweep.
Sullivan, a 14-year veteran of the municipal staff, will be particularly happy to move to a more predictable office climate. While some of her colleagues were swimming in a veritable sauna, she was often draped in a sweater.
“A good many days this year it was 48 degrees when I came in here,” Sullivan said with a chuckle.
Like Webster, Sullivan grew up in Middlebury, so she has logged memories of the building that go beyond her professional life. She, too, attended roller skating events and other functions in the gym.
She’s eager to be stationed at 77 Main St.
“I’m hoping we can modernize things to another level,” she said.
Middlebury College last week held a meeting to show some preliminary designs for the public park that will replace the old municipal complex at 94 Main St. Planners are tentatively looking at June for demolition.
And when those walls come down, people should remember they are more than tired bricks and mortar.
“This old building is one of those that you wonder, ‘If these walls could talk … what would they say?’” Dow said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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