ST. ALBANS CITY — Saturday dawned bright and chilly for most in St. Albans. But for the 20 or so people participating in the Save the Historical Smith House From Demolition protest at Taylor Park, it was a day to get outside and let their voices be heard.
According to organizer Daniel Green, the protest is intended to be the first of many in the run up to the next Vermont Environmental Court hearing, expected in May, on demolition and new construction on the property.
Environmental Court Judge Thomas Durkin approved a demolition permit for the Connor Group, LLC, the owner, in November 2013, when the judge determined it was economically infeasible to preserve and restore the 19th century building. The next court hearing will determine whether the group receives a construction permit for the property.
Katie Schmidlen took part in the weekend protest with her Husky, Brigid, because she had watched historically significant buildings be taken down during her childhood, and didn’t want to see it happen in St. Albans.
“I grew up in a suburb of New York and watched all the historical structures go down,” Schmidlen said. “Once it’s gone, you can’t replace it.”
Green said on Saturday, “You can’t understate the local significance of the building. St. Albans wouldn’t be what it is without John Gregory Smith.”
The Smith Homestead has been on the corner of Maiden Lane and Congress Street since 1820, when industrialist and politician John Smith built the brick portion. Smith and his children, including J. Gregory who later became governor, would go on to play a central role in St. Albans and Vermont through their political, business and industrial accomplishments.
The Smith House was purchased by the Owl Club in 1908, and it was home to the club for a century before it closed in 2008. The Connor Group purchased the property in late 2012, and has since taken steps to tear the old building down and put up a new 11,500-square-foot office building.
In a September 2013 court hearing, the Connor Group testified that the costs of restoration would amount to $1.1 million. The Connor Group has been involved with various historic reconstruction projects in the past, and has taken the position that a Smith House project would be too costly.
However, according to expert Robert Neeld of Engineering Ventures hired jointly St. Albans City and the Preservation Trust of Vermont in the fall, assessments of the Maiden Lane property showed that restoration was physically and financially feasible. It would require a lot of labor and skilled work, but could be done, according to Neeld.
Despite the positive assessment by Neeld and an appeal filed by local residents Sue and Mark Prent and Peter Ford, the demolition permit was issued in November, and the Connor Group is now waiting on their construction permit.
Like the demolition permit process, the Connor Group will be met by some local opposition as it tries to take the next steps in the construction project, such as those attending the protest on Saturday.
Green said over the weekend that he is organizing the protests as a way to let other residents, the city, and the Connor Group know that the Smith House is important to enough people that it should be preserved. “We’re doing this in the hopes that somebody might be able – through different channels – [to do something].”
Jeremy Murray, who helped Green organize the protest, said that it might be in the Connor Group’s best interest to offer some goodwill by making the effort to save the historic building. “Most people I talk to think if it can be saved, it should be saved,” Murray said.
For Green and others, they would be happy for the old Smith House to be incorporated into a new building, as long as they don’t lose a valuable piece of history.
“That’s a landmark – it would be so sad to see it destroyed,” Green said.