Work concluding on addition for iconic Middlebury church

MIDDLEBURY — For 208 years, the majestic Congregational Church of Middlebury has symbolically stood vigil over downtown Middlebury from its perch at the intersection of North Pleasant and Main streets.
Workers are currently putting some of the final touches on a sibling structure that will provide much-needed program space for the church’s growing membership, youth education classes and humanitarian outreach efforts.
The two-story, 8,000-square-foot addition springs from the north side of the historic Congregational Church worship hall. It has been on the congregation’s wish list for several decades, though this version has been in the works since around 2011. The new structure will be officially introduced to the community at a Sept. 9 open house, though church leaders and project coordinators on Tuesday gave the Independent a sneak peek at what is now an 80-percent-complete version of the congregation’s collective vision.
The Rev. Andrew Nagy-Benson, pastor of the church, said he admires the creativity of the architects and skill of the professionals putting up the structure.
“I have not been involved in anything like this before, so I’ve watched the progress with the excitement of a five-year-old,” Nagy-Benson said.
“As I make my way around the community, I feel the enthusiasm from the community at large,” said John Tenny of Mill Bridge Construction, general contractor for the project. “We know the congregation is very excited and their confidence and enthusiasm is buoyed by this project. The community, too, is very pleased to see a bulwark of the town fortified.”
Though it won’t be open for church business for another four months, the addition was a beehive of construction activity this week amid the cacophony of skill saws and power tools. It was music to the ears of parishioners Russ Carpenter, Dave Hallam and Phil Heitkamp, who have taken lead roles in making sure the project is built to the church’s specifications.
A brief tour of the addition reveals a wealth of new space served by modern amenities.
The first floor is education-centered. It features two classrooms for children’s religious classes and another room for youth-led discussion groups. Two restrooms, showers and kitchen facilities will ensure visiting mission groups will have basic conveniences while they give service to others.
Elevator and stairway options lead to the second floor, which includes offices, storage, restrooms, an entrance to the church sanctuary, another two classrooms and a spacious “Unity Hall.” The unity hall will host religious services on late Sunday afternoons, along with larger church meetings, musical performances and even small weddings. The church will also occasionally rent out the space for daylong conferences, as it will be equipped with audio-visual equipment, Wi-Fi and acoustic panels.
Some organizations build facilities hoping people will use them. Congregational church members know their new addition will be actively used, right off the bat.
Carpenter said the Congregational Church of Middlebury has been bucking the statewide and national trend of declining parishioners. Thanks in part to the energy of the Rev. Nagy-Benson and an extraordinary community service program, church membership has increased to almost 400 members, according to Carpenter. A new generation is joining the flock, as evidenced by its thriving religious education programs.
Hallam, the local project manager, provided some statistical context.
“One of the things that drove the program was the church was growing,” Hallam said. “I looked at a four-year period (2010-2014) where the church membership had grown at least 25 percent to 30 percent, and the church school had grown 400 percent … There was a real driving need (for an addition).”
Not that the issue of extra room hasn’t been raised before.
“Since 1957, there have been multiple discussions and votes on what to do with the church facility,” Carpenter, the church’s moderator, said.
It was in 1970 that the congregation agreed to purchase the nearby Charter House at 27 North Pleasant St. to host the church’s administrative offices, pastor’s office and some other programming.
Ensuing years saw church leaders map out some expansion plans showing what Carpenter described as “an addition shoehorned into the parking lot.” Those plans never left the drawing board.
Meanwhile, it was becoming clearer that the Charter House would not fit into the church’s long-term plans. The church was outgrowing that facility and congregants increasingly wanted to consolidate operations in a single location, on one side of the road. So leaders around 10 years ago made an effort to sell the Charter House to the former Gailer School. That sale never happened, and the Gailer School no longer exists.
Ultimately, church members decided to keep the Charter House, which will soon be fully occupied by the Charter House Coalition’s programs that serves thousands of free community meals each year and provides shelter for homeless individuals and families.
The big breakthrough in the congregation’s planning for an addition came through in 2008. That’s when the adjacent “Cobble House” — containing six rental apartments — came up for sale. Parishioners voted to purchase that building with the intent of razing it to provide enough space for a two-story addition onto the north side of the church building.
Project organizers knew that an addition would have to be respectful of the main church building, completed back in 1809. It once hosted the Vermont Legislature and is part of the town of Middlebury’s official logo.
“It’s actually a daunting task to add on to such an icon,” project architect Steve Smith said. “I was well aware of the historic significance of it. I think the process was a good one. We worked with the church to establish a program — the goals of the project, functions and needs — and then we did a series of concepts to find the right approach.”
Planners developed a design that won favor with town officials and the church congregation.
“(The project) was designed to be deferential and complementary to the church, but it has its own character,” Smith said. “It adds its own kind of public role on the street. It is distinctly set apart from the iconic church by the courtyard and change of material in the connector piece. That was all intentional. It is part of the church, but separate — somewhat.”
The connector façade features a darker exterior surface made of “Oko Skin” — glass-fiber concrete panels that denote where the church’s first 210 years of history trail off and where a new chapter begins.
“It lets you know you’re going from an historic structure to a separate building,” Hallam said.
Parishioners raised a whopping $3.2 million to finance the addition, as well as a new church kitchen and new front steps to the main church building.
Workers, under the direction of Mill Bridge Construction, broke ground on the addition last June and have been working steadily ever since.
Tenny said work has gone smoothly since overcoming two initial obstacles: The discovery of a phantom sewer line, and a slight delay in relocating a few of the tenants from the former Cobble House.
“Once the Cobble House was cleared in July, we were able to get that out of the way and went pretty much into full gear,” Tenny said. “The process forward has been fairly smooth since that time.”
Tenny believes the new church addition is in keeping with the scale and style of existing structures along Seymour and North Pleasant streets. He contends the new structure provides a visual upgrade from the former Cobble House.
“It is part of the urban environment, which works well,” Tenny said. “I think people are reacting quite well to it.”
Hallam said the project is on course to conclude within budget and in time for the Sept. 9 public unveiling. This timetable will allow officials to gradually move in furniture, supplies and other items during July and August.
He echoed the Rev. Nagy-Benson’s recent comments about the addition finally coming to fruition after several previous failed attempts.
“The right people with the right skills and the right mindset have come to this church at the right time to make this happen,” Hallam said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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