ENOSBURG FALLS — Architects and engineers offered solutions to improve access and energy efficiency at the Enosburgh Opera House Tuesday afternoon — and they did so pro bono.

Thank Greta Brunswick, a senior planner for the Northwest Regional Planning Commission, for that.

Brunswick reached out to the organizers of ACX19, Vermont’s premiere architecture and construction expo, and asked if the opera house — and the Enosburg Historical Society — would make good candidates for the conference’s community outreach design charette.

The charette was a new program at this year’s expo, setting architects and engineers to work on community design projects in “constituencies who are underserved by the architecture and design professions.”

ACX organizers said yes.

Weeks prior to the conference, Brunswick and the opera house’s managing director, Matthew Stebbins, toured the opera house with architect Jess Gardner and architectural designer Lealoni Coathup. 

The quartet then put together a draft plan of the opera house’s needs, for circulation during the afternoon outreach charette at ACX.

Enosburgh representatives did more than hand out the draft and wait at Tuesday’s conference, though, held throughout the day at the Burlington Hilton on Battery Street.

The panel of professionals included Coathup, an architectural designer at TruexCullins Architecture & Interior Design; Bob Neeld, a structural and civil engineer who owns Engineering Ventures; Mary Jane Poynter, an Efficiency Vermont energy consultant; Stephen Poston, an architect at Freeman French Freeman Architects; and Rebecca Campbell, an architect and specification writer at Kalin Associates Inc.

Neeld’s firm structurally engineered renovations to the opera house from 1999-2000.

Stebbins was there, representing the opera house, with Matt Miner, representing the Enosburg Historical Society, as well as Amanda Holland, an NRPC regional planner, since Brunswick couldn’t attend.

Stebbins and Miner introduced the panel to the SE Group’s Vital Village project, the downtown revitalization plan nearing finalization. 

Stebbins and Miner focused on the plan’s proposed improvements to Depot Street, which houses both the historical society museum and the opera house.

With those buildings, plus the renovated Quincy Hotel and the American Legion, Stebbins said Depot Street is “a hub for culture, events and commerce in Enosburgh.”

“In light of this,” Stebbins said, “there is interest in giving the street a more landscaped feel to enhance walkability and fit more with the character of the village center.”

Stebbins enthusiastically described the subsequent panel, and its outcomes, to the Messenger.

The Friends of the Opera House, a 501(c)3 non-profit, runs the Enosburg Opera House. The Town of Enosburgh and the Village of Enosburg Falls jointly own the building.

The town annually allocates $30,000 for the building’s maintenance costs, which the town selectboard puts before voters every Town Meeting Day.

The opera house building is closed from early January to late March. Stebbins said that’s because the cost of heating during those months would exceed the town’s allocation, and probably exceed any revenue the opera house might generate from winter programming, according to Stebbins.

Substantially reducing those heating costs could keep the opera house open year-round, though, allowing additional events and rental revenue in the colder months. 

With that in mind, Stebbins said, improving the building’s energy efficiency is a major project for the Friends of the Opera House.

That ties in to the building’s access problems as well. Stebbins said the building’s front and side exits need renovation to maximize energy efficiency and personal safety, without sacrificing the historic nature of the building. The National Register of Historic Places includes the opera house.

The Enosburgh Opera House stands proud in this Messenger file photo. (FILE PHOTO)

Stebbins said both doors are probably original to the building, and as such, “have deteriorated beyond sensible repair,” resulting in significant heat loss during the winter.

Stebbins said the Friends are currently exploring a grant opportunity with the Preservation Trust of Vermont that could replace both doors with energy efficiency reproductions, cutting heating costs without sacrificing the doors’ historic quality.

The Friends have other safety concerns. 

The building’s current side staircase could be a challenge for those with mobility issues, trying to safely exit in an emergency. 

And before the Friends could operate the building year-round, the front entrance needs work: snow and ice regularly fall from the building there in the winter, resulting in what Stebbins called “a major potential hazard.” 

Then there’s the opportunity to connect the building with the Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail, which directly passes the opera house. Right now, there’s no crosswalk or clear pedestrian path that could lead visitors across Depot Street to the opera house, or a crosswalk for those coming up the adjacent Archambault Street.

Those were the primary issues with which the panel of ACX professionals contended.

Stebbins said he explained those issues, and took questions, during the first hour of the three-hour charette. 

The panel brainstormed during the second hour, dividing aspects of the project according to each panelist’s strengths, aided by architectural scales, transparent drafting paper, pencils, markers, Post-It Notes.

“I joked that it reminded me of the craft table in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom,” Stebbins said.

Per Stebbins, the process was thrilling to watch.

He said, “The architects and designers grabbed the drawings of the existing building and set about drafting different solutions to the front and side exits,” as well as possible improvements to the path to the building’s elevator.

Neeld provided engineering advice. Poynter drafted a multi-page document of recommendations after reviewing an energy audit at the opera house several years ago.

Stebbins got hold of Suzi Hull-Casavant, who chairs the Friends board, by telephone. Stebbins said Hull-Casavant provided information that “really helped to improve the energy efficiency recommendations.”

In the conference’s third and final hour, the panel finalized its proposals, “working intensely,” Stebbins said, to share those proposals with attendees during the ensuing cocktail hour. 

Those finalized proposals included three detailed improvement designs: a side exit, bringing the opera house into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act while conforming with historic preservation best practices, a vestibule allowing safe access to the building during the winter and reducing heat loss, and a remodeled rear of the building, improving elevator access, maintaining storage space and adding a restroom and shower for event participants — plus a detailed list of energy improvements, including best practices to install additional insulation.

“All in all, it was a very exciting and rewarding experience,” Stebbins said.

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