Three options pitched for historic Bristol firehouse: B&B? Museum? Workshop/residence?

BRISTOL — The old North Street firehouse in Bristol has been standing empty since last July, when the Bristol Fire Department moved into its station on West Street.
Now three parties are vying to bring new life to the century-old building as a machinery museum, a bed and breakfast or a private residence.
The potential purchasers of the historic village property on Monday presented their ideas to the Bristol selectboard, which quizzed each on its plans. Selectboard members postponed the final selection until their next meeting, Feb. 27.
After a nonbinding vote at last year’s town meeting showed residents in favor of selling 32 North St. “as is,” the selectboard stipulated that any new owner “preserve/restore” the “historical integrity” of the exterior of the 1897 building. The requirement to preserve the historical exterior is part of the deed, Town Administrator Therese Kirby explained, and so would be part of any subsequent sale of the property.
A 1970s-era building on the site, known as “Station 2,” could be torn down or maintained as a new owner saw fit.
The cost of renovations to the 3,600-square-foot wood frame structure have been estimated at $500,000 to $800,000. All applicants were required to demonstrate proof of funding.
The selectboard’s criteria for choosing a winning proposal includes: “price, economic impact on Bristol, conformity and complementation with neighborhood and downtown design and economic mix.”
Bristol resident Robert Bernstein has submitted a proposal to restore the historic building and use it to house a museum of New England 19th century woodworking machinery. The selectboard rejected Bernstein’s proposal of the same nature last fall.
“This proposal presents real opportunity for the town that other proposals won’t,” Bernstein told the selectboard on Monday.
He said that among these unique benefits are:
•  Continuing public use of the landmark property.
•  Distinguishing Bristol as a cultural and historical destination.
•  Bringing tourism dollars to Bristol, along with grant funding.
•  Providing potential for educational use and volunteerism.
Given Bristol’s long history with wood manufacturing and the woods products industry, Bernstein said his proposal would show Bristol to be a place “that honors its heritage and moves into the future with far-sighted projects.”
Bernstein highlighted a number of changes in his new proposal including a willingness to commit to five years of property taxes for a purpose he described as “very likely able to be exempted,” upping his offer price by about 6 percent (offers have not been disclosed publicly), and a willingness to sign an agreement stating that he would not use the facility to simply warehouse his machinery collection. Bernstein also offered the town a permanent seat on the museum’s board of directors.
Bernstein has gathered a number of endorsements for his proposal, including ones from State Sen. Claire Ayer, Bristol State Reps. Dave Sharpe and Fred Baser, and Ann Lawless, the executive director of the American Precision Museum in Windsor. The Precision Museum houses the country’s “largest selection of historically significant machine tools.”
Bernstein plans to have the Bristol museum open in 2018. He estimates renovation expenses at under $100,000. In terms of redevelopment experience, Bernstein cited his work on the board of the Rokeby Museum and his outreach to similar enterprises to discuss the feasibility of and get support for his proposal.
Bernstein would keep the 1970s Station 2 and renovate it as an exhibit space.
William Gibbs would use the property as his private residence, with the first floor a small wood shop and the second floor a living area.
“I plan on restoring this in ways that the other people won’t be able to,” he said.
Gibbs has worked as a master carpenter for over three decades, and he described himself to the selectboard as an “extensively trained military structural superintendent: background covers anything that can be covered in masonry and carpentry, predominantly carpentry. I’ve run up to 75-man crews, taking on every kind of project you can imagine. This goes all the back to World War I as far as buildings are concerned.”
Gibbs talked in detail about the building’s condition right down to the fact that it still has its original coal chute and described what would be needed to restore it, including how to remake the windows using the original rolled glass and how to restore the horsehair plaster walls.
“She’s an old girl but a proud one,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs has been living in Georgia, Vt., and is in the process of relocating to Bristol, where he has family, including brother Kevin Gibbs, who is police chief. He’s currently employed at Connor Homes as part of the small windows division, which is still operating after the owner closed all other operations at the end of December.
In his proposal, Gibbs said he was also “open and willing” for the town to use the property  “for occasional static displays to promote a sense of pride in the town’s great history and honoring the past during events such as parades and holidays. Such static displays could include parking of fire engines, posting of signs, and similar displays of historical importance.
Gibbs plans to do almost all the work himself, with exceptions including septic and electrical work, and estimated the building would require close to 850 hours in manpower. Because he plans to carry out most of the renovations himself (750 hours of work), Gibbs estimated renovation expenses at under $35,000.
“She will be a gem in the town when I get done,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs would renovate Station 2 as a garage or storage area.
Heather and John “Peeker” Heffernan are proposing to renovate 32 North St. as a four-guestroom inn to be called the “Firehouse Inn.” Peeker Heffernan is well known in the community as co-owner/operator of Heffernan Brothers Aggregate and has worked in excavating and as a general contractor since 1986. A former fire chief, he is also a Bristol selectman and has recused himself from the decision-making process.
“We want to preserve the building and we have high standards to preserve the whole history of the firehouse as well,” said Heather Heffernan. “I really love the historical part of it.”
The Heffernans said that part of the motivation behind their proposal was the dearth of places to stay in Bristol and they felt that having an inn in the historic firehouse would benefit the town as a whole.
The Heffernans propose to create a common area on the main floor, including a full kitchen and half bath. Two bedrooms would go on the first floor and two on the second. One of the upstairs guest rooms would have a view of the exposed hose tower. The inn would have a “historical fire house theme.”
The Heffernans plan to dismantle “Station 2” and possibly reuse it at another location off site. They plan to put in five parking spaces along the northern boundary, take out the remaining pavement and landscape with shrubs, grass and perennials.
“We are adamant about preserving the historic integrity of the building and plan on opening and restoring the hose tower, restoring the original tin ceiling on the main floor, and refinishing the wood flooring on the second,” the Heffernan’s wrote in their proposal.
The Heffernans’ proposal would require a change in zoning bylaw that would allow owners of a four-bedroom guest facility to live off site. The new zoning regulations that will be before Bristol residents on Town Meeting Day stipulate that guest facilities of one to 12 bedrooms, whether in the “inn” or the “bed and breakfast” categories, must be owner occupied.
The Heffernans’ timeline would be to put the bylaw change to the community at the March 2018 town meeting but to begin work beforehand removing station 2, designing the septic system, installing a new basement floor and dismantling the interior. The main interior renovation would begin  after the bylaw vote.
They estimate renovation expenses at $200,000.
“I want it to be a positive thing for Bristol. It’s not just for us, it’s for everybody,” said Heather Heffernan. “I think it would be a really beautiful building to restore.”
Residents can see the proposals at the Bristol town office.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

Share this story:

More News
News Uncategorized

Fresh Air Fund youths returning to county

The Fresh Air Fund, initiated in 1877 to give kids from New York City the opportunity to e … (read more)

Obituaries Uncategorized

Mark A. Nelson of Bristol

BRISTOL — A memorial service for Mark A. Nelson of Bristol will be held 1 p.m. on Saturday … (read more)

Sports Uncategorized

High school athletes ready for fall playoffs this week

See when your favorite high school team is competing in the fall sports playoffs.

Share this story: