ST. ALBANS CITY — Vermont Environmental Court Judge Thomas Durkin toured the former Owl Club and early 1800’s Smith family homestead on Monday morning before taking testimony from witnesses at the Vermont Environmental Court in Barre in the afternoon.
The court session involved testimony from the building’s current owner and developer and a second contractor who has experience in restoring historic buildings. The two were not in agreement on all issues.
The hearing was on a motion for a stay of demolition filed by the appellants, Peter Ford, Sue Prent and Mark Prent. The three city residents are appealing a Development Review Board (DRB) permit that earlier this year authorized the demolition of the former Owl Club, including the portion built by John Smith in 1820.
Durkin said that while he could not consider any of what he saw or heard during the site visit as evidence, the visit would provide context for the evidence presented during the motion hearing and subsequent trial.
The tour, during which all participants wore protective masks to avoid breathing in mold, was conducted by Mike Connor, of the Connor Group, which owns the building and hopes to develop the site for office space, and the company’s attorney Sandy Fead.
The building was constructed in several sections at different times, said Fead. The original house was built in 1820. The first addition appears to have been built by the Owl Club, a young gentleman’s organization, after it purchased the building in 1908 and is roughly 100 years old, according to Connor.
During yesterday’s hearing the appellants said they had no interest in the preservation of the additions, only the 1820 house.
Fead pointed out the condition of the roof, the chimneys and the walls.
When the tour group reached the northwest corner of the building, Connor began removing loose bricks until stopped by Durkin. “Let’s not take it down yet,” Durkin said.
In the basement, Connor pointed to undermined footings, unsupported beams and “framing members saturated with moisture and mold.” Water had worn a visible path through the dirt in a large section of the basement under the racquetball court and running water could be heard.
“There’s a ton of groundwater infiltrating everywhere,” said Connor, who pointed out damage to electrical boxes. “Everything would have to be removed and start from scratch again,” he said.
The basement of the Smith house portion of the building had a brick floor and no water running through it. However, there was a hole in the east wall of the Smith house foundation and a brick support column was severely deteriorated.
Black mold was visible throughout the building, turning the ceiling tiles in the restrooms gray. Throughout the additions, ceiling tiles were either discolored, falling down or already on the floor.
In the Smith house, Connor said, “Load bearing wall from the basement up is settling as a result of how the basement wall was compromised.”
The ground level interior of the brick house did not contain as much mold as the rest of the house, but Durkin declined to climb a spiral staircase whose bannister was destroyed by vandals over Memorial Day weekend.
When the east addition was made to the building, a section was cut out of the roof of the Smith house, according to Connor.
“The only thing that supports the roof is the brick walls and the walls are extremely compromised,” he said.
Discussing building restoration, Connor said, “Logistically speaking, how would do this… Once we take the roof off everything below it is unstable.”
“It’s infeasible and nearly impossible,” he said.
Another contractor, Phillip Livingston, disagreed. Livingston was called to the stand by Paul Gillies, attorney for Ford and the Prents.
Livingston said he had been considering purchasing the property when the Connor Group bought it last December. Livingston’s experience is primarily with residential construction, but he has worked on several older homes and restoration projects at Shelburne Farms, a National Historic Landmark on the shores of Lake Champlain in Shelburne.
Livingston said he had been looking at ways to preserve the Smith house. On the stand for roughly 45 minutes, he testified that although the building has been structurally compromised, it could be preserved. However, he did not know the cost of such preservation.
“This building has been standing there for 200 years. It’s as straight as an arrow,” he said.
Livingston also disagreed with Connor’s assessment of the difficulty of roof repairs, saying it would be possible to stabilize the building while repairs were made.
Asked about a bowed foundation wall on the west side of the Smith house, under the porch, Livingston said, “It surely isn’t straight, but it was built out of brick and stone in 1820.” Later, he added, “Are we sure it was ever plumb?”
As part of their DRB application, the Connor Group provided an assessment of the building from Cliff Collins of Ruggiano Engineering. Collins did not provide any cost estimates for restoration of the building. Asked about Collins’ report, Livingston said it was “very thorough.” However, it was an assessment of the entire building and did not separate out the 1820 building. “You can look at them as two separate buildings,” said Livingston.
Livingston testified the woodwork in the interior would have to be examined piece-by-piece and restored or replicated. He conceded such work would be more expensive than constructing a new buildings, but added, “you’d be comparing apples and oranges.”
It would not be possible to replicate the Smith house for less than the cost of restoration, Livingston testified.
Fead challenged Livingston’s status as an expert witness and moved to have his testimony struck on the grounds that he lacked sufficient expertise. Durkin denied the motion, but said he would weight the testimony based upon what he heard of Livingston’s experience.
The St. Albans City Council voted in July to pay $500 to hire, along with the Preservation Trust of Vermont, an engineer with experience in historic preservation to evaluate the Smith house and report on the cost and feasibility of restoring the Smith house.
However, that expert, Robert Neeld, the president of Engineering Ventures in Burlington, has not yet been to the Smith house.
Initially, the Connors agreed to have Neeld visit the building, but wanted to have a chance to enter the homes of Ford and the Prents as well. The Prents and Ford objected, noting that their homes are not the subject of the litigation.
The Connor Group conceded that point, but the visit to the Smith homestead has still not taken place. Sue Prent testified she believes any arrangements need to be made between the Connors, the city and the Preservation Trust, since it is the city and the trust that are paying Neeld’s fee.
Ford testified that the future of the case hinges on Neeld’s findings. “We are not unrealistic,” he said. “We want to have historic building be saved if it can be saved.” If Neeld were to find the building is not salvageable then Ford said the discussion should proceed to the proposed new building.
Testimony was to reconvene in Barre this morning.