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Orwell eyes school addition

ORWELL — Orwell officials are considering expanding their local school to accommodate a cafeteria and gym, amenities currently provided though the adjacent town hall building, which is being targeted for demolition.
The Orwell Town Hall Committee would like to keep the school addition project budget at around $2 million, though local residents learned on Tuesday evening they might get some financial help for their capital needs. That’s because of a successful Nov. 6 vote that will bring Orwell into the Slate Valley Modified Unified Union School District, which includes the communities of Castleton, Benson, Hubbardton, West Haven and Fair Haven.
With Orwell joining the SVMUUSD, the project can be underwritten by all district-member taxpayers, as opposed to just Orwell residents.
Driving the project is the fact that the 178-year-old Orwell Town Hall building has fallen into significant disrepair — so much so that the Town Hall Committee is recommending it be demolished. The town hall’s shortcomings include a subpar heating system, antiquated electrical wiring, and insufficient access for people with disabilities.
“It’s falling apart,” Orwell Village School Principal Patrick Walters said of the 1840 building, which the town gave to the local school district back in 1961.
Orwell Town Clerk Betty Walker noted the town hall was originally built as a Methodist Church. The Greek Revival-style structure at 494 Main St. is endowed with impressive, Ionic columns that frame its front entrance. The building once had a clock tower and steeple, but those were removed around a century ago.
While the building has been deteriorating, it continues to provide yeoman’s service to this southern Addison County community of 1,250 residents.
It hosts Orwell’s annual town meeting, an annual turkey dinner put on by the next door Congregational Church, and a variety of other, occasional activities sponsored by civic and non-profit groups.
But the structure’s primary users are the approximately 150 PreK-8th grade students of the Orwell Village School, who walk around 100 feet from their adjacent school — sometimes through rain and snow — to eat and play at the town hall.
They must eat lunch in three separate shifts, as the cafeteria isn’t big enough to accommodate the entire student body. And diners can have a tough time conversing through the din of nearby freezers and refrigerators, according to Peter Stone, leader of Orwell’s Town Hall Committee. That 10-member panel has for several months been exploring options for either renovating the town hall or replacing it with a school addition.
HEAD CUSTODIAN SCOTT Aprilliano cleans up the cafeteria in the basement of the Orwell Town Hall Monday afternoon. Orwell Village School students eat in three shifts in the tiny lunchroom and compete to be heard over the sound of the noisy refrigerators.
Independent photo/John S. McCright
The committee is pursuing the latter scenario.
“The building is in bad shape,” Stone said. “Not all of it is ADA accessible. The gym isn’t big enough, and the cafeteria and kitchen aren’t big enough.”
Stone ran through a list of other shortcomings. The gym’s basketball court isn’t even close to regulation size. Flooring is peeling up in the kitchen. The boiler needs to be replaced. There’s no insulation to speak of. There’s a lack of storage space.
All of this has led the Town Hall Committee to support the concept of razing the town hall and building an addition onto the “upper wing” of the west side of the school.
The committee has commissioned Vermont Integrated Architecture (VIA) of Middlebury to help solve the school’s space needs. Andrea Murray of VIA on Oct. 25 presented the committee with four options for a school addition. Three of those options call for an addition off the west side of the school, toward the playing fields. The fourth option places the addition off the east side of the school, toward the town garage.
Murray said some pieces of the town hall — such as the columns — could be salvaged and incorporated into the addition.
Local officials will spend the coming months refining, with VIA’s help, a preferred proposal that would accommodate, among other things, a cafeteria, gym, kitchen and perhaps a multi-purpose room.
School officials vowed to make the final plan as cost-effective as possible. An initial estimate for a 15,000-16,000-square-foot addition came in at approximately $4.9 million.
“The figure is double what is palatable for the community,” reads an entry in the Town Hall Committee’s Oct. 25 minutes. “The committee was actually thinking about half that amount.”
With that in mind, the panel has asked VIA to devise a project costing around $2 million. That budget is likely to produce an addition of up to 10,000 square feet, according to committee members.
Project supporters stressed the addition would be available for the same functions — including town meeting — that the town hall currently accommodates.
Stone and his colleagues had set a goal of holding a local bond vote on a school addition on Town Meeting Day next March. But given Tuesday’s vote calling for Orwell to join the SVMUUSD, project financing could take a different tack.
Some Orwell residents aren’t eager to see the old town hall removed from its longtime perch.
“I would hate to see it go,” Walker said, though she acknowledged the structure’s deficiencies.
Sandy Korda is president of the Orwell Historical Society and curator of the town’s museum. He acknowledged the town hall isn’t on the state’s Register of Historic Places, owing to the substantial changes to the structure (loss of steeple, clock tower) through the years. But he believes the building possesses intrinsic historic value and should be maintained for other community uses — such as a headquarters for Orwell’s thriving artists’ guild. Korda said the guild could access grants to make basic upgrades to the structure.
“The shell (of the building) is fine; it needs some scrape and paint,” he said.
Removing the town hall building, according to Korda, would forever alter the town’s prototypical Rockwellian village scene. That scene now includes the village green, gazebo, town hall and Congregational Church.
“To remove this building would be a crime,” Korda said.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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