ST. ALBANS CITY — On Tuesday, Vermont Environmental Court Judge Thomas Durkin ordered a 30-day stay on the demolition of the former John Smith residence in St. Albans City.
The stay would allow time for an engineer with expertise in historic preservation hired jointly by the city and the Preservation Trust of Vermont to assess and report on the cost and feasibility of preservation of the Smith house portion of the property.
During testimony, the first estimate of the cost of restoration was presented by Mike Connor who put the cost at $900,000.
The Connor Group received permission from the city’s Development Review Board (DRB) earlier this year to demolish what is also known as the former Owl Club at 13 Maiden Lane and replace it with a modern 11,500-square-foot office building. The permit has been appealed by three neighbors – Peter Ford, Sue Prent and Mark Prent.
The historic 1820 home of former congressman and railroad co-founder John Smith was purchased by the Owl Club in 1908. The club over the years made four additions to the building.
More than six hours of testimony offered yesterday focused on the condition of the Smith house portion of the club, referred to throughout as the brick house, and what measures would need to be taken to preserve it.
Cliff Collins, of Ruggiano Engineering, who performed an assessment of the condition of the entire club for the Connor Group, spent several hours outlining all of the problems with the brick house, including the east foundation wall and a roof that will need significant repairs and perhaps replacement.
Mike Connor, president of Connor Contracting and a partner in the Connor Group, testified that he estimated the cost of restoring the Smith house at $256 per square foot, or approximately $500,000. In order for the building to be used as a commercial building it also would require an elevator and an additional stairwell to make it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). That would add at least another $200,000 to the cost of the renovation.
Demolition of the additions and “soft costs,” such as engineering would add another $200,000, he testified. When the purchase cost of the building is included, the total cost of the renovation would be $1.1 million, he estimated.
At that price tag, the cost to lease the building would be $45 per square foot, putting the building well out of the range of market, according to Connor. He testified that commercial space in St. Albans generally rents for $10 to $12 per square foot.
“It’s an economic and logistical challenge that can’t be met,” Connor said.
Asked whether other buildings within the historic district have been demolished, Connor cited several that have received demolition permits in recent years, including the Rail City Salon building, which still stands on Lake Street, and the Brickyard Tavern which recently was razed on Federal Street. The demolition applications for those buildings included elements not included in the Connor’s application. For example, those applications included an estimate of restoration costs. One of the two estimates for the Brickyard was done by Connor Contracting.
The Connor’s application did not include such an estimate, which is one reason for the appeal of the permit.
The other demolition applications also included an assessment by an expert in historic architecture who reviewed the history of the buildings and their contribution to the historic district.
Mylan Technologies, Inc. and the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery provided similar analyses when they sought to demolish historic buildings.
The history of the buildings and photographic documentation of the buildings as they exist now was included in the application for the demolition permit. Mylan Technologies also offered to create a public display about the history of their Lake Street property and the buildings it contained to mitigate the loss of historic structures on the site.
None of these steps was taken by the Connor Group as part of its application to demolish the Smith house.
Collins testified that the efforts to construct a bowling alley in the basement of the east addition, which is attached to the brick house, undermined the east wall of the house’s foundation.
Collins described the work necessary to shore up the foundation as expensive, complicated and “tricky to say the least.”
Connor testified the entire foundation wall would likely need to replaced, with the house supported while the old foundation wall, four feet at a time, was removed and a new one put into place.
In his testimony Collins also addressed the noticeable bowing in the west foundation wall under the front porch on Maiden Lane. The bowing is likely the result of excessive moisture in the soil around the foundation.
Collins has recommended waterproofing the foundation and installing drainage around. Such work would be even more critical at the west wall, he said.
Doing that work would require removing the porch and excavating by hand the area around the foundation, cleaning the foundation walls, sealing them and adding a drainage system.
The west wall also would have to be buttressed from the inside, Collins said, which is generally done by adding another concrete wall.
The north and south walls of the foundation required significantly less work, but would require replacement of deteriorated mortar.
The brick on the entire building would need to be repointed, meaning that loose mortar would need to be removed and replaced. The lintels – the wood fixtures above the doors and windows – need to be replaced. That work would require removing multiple layers of brick above the windows, according to Collins.
The roof framing would either need to be bolstered with new framing added to support the existing framing or it would need to be removed and replaced, Collins said.
In order to repair the interior, exploratory measures would necessary to determine the location of framing and its condition. Because standard beams were used to support the floor joists at the time of construction, those beams would need to be reinforced or replaced, Collins testified.
In locations where water damage to the fixtures is evident, Collins expects there will be damaged framing.
The building also would need new electric, heating and plumbing systems, according to Connor. Installing those systems would require stripping the building down to the framing, he said.
Although the level of mold infiltration is more obvious in the additions than it is in the original Smith house, Connor said there is still evidence of water and mold damage within the brick house. In order to remove the mold, the framing would likely need to be blasted with plastic beads and then sealed, he testified.
Collins said that salvageable wood fixtures would need to be removed and sent to an expert to have mold and lead paint removed. Fixtures that could not be saved would have to be replicated.
Even with all of that work Connor said he would not guarantee the building would be safe to occupy.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to prove that’s a healthy building,” said Connor, expressing concern about continuing mold risk.
Demolishing the additions, while preserving the brick building, would add significantly to the cost of demolition, Connor testified. He said he would not be able to guarantee there would not be damage to the brick house during demolition of the additions. “With all that vibration, we’re fairly sure we’re going to lose the east wall,” Connor said.
The St. Albans City Council in July approved a $500 expenditure, which when combined with financial support from the Preservation Trust of Vermont, hired Robert Neeld, president of Engineering Ventures in Burlington. Neeld, an expert on historical building renovation, now has a month or less to evaluate the Owl Club and Smith homestead and issue a report to be reviewed by the court.