By Julia Purdy
ROCHESTER—On Saturday, April 30, Pierce Hall hosted an antiques appraisal fundraiser for the ongoing restoration of Pierce Hall—especially significant this year, as the building celebrates its 100th anniversary. Lunch fare of homemade soups and baked goods was offered and the atmosphere was friendly and low-key. Several dozen people brought items to be appraised by professional appraisers, who donated their services.
“Where, except in a New England Village like Rochester, could such a gathering be held, old and young, from far and near, meeting for a common purpose, a good time together?” reads the dedication of Pierce Hall in Rochester, Vt., Dec. 27, 1916. Originally named Pierce Memorial Hall, the two-story brick block with its deep portico and square rooftop tower was the gift of Julia Pierce to the town, to be used as a gathering place and community center.
Julia Pierce named it to commemorate her husband, Edward Pierce, and her father-in-law, Chester Pierce. The family had been successful merchants and landowners since the late 1700s and used their fortune to better the community, in the spirit of the Progressive Era. Julia Pierce hired a local tradesman, Charles Kinsman, to design and build the hall.
Nancy Pierce Woolley, who grew up in Rochester and occupies a Pierce family house in the heart of Rochester village, described her great-grandmother as a “suffragette” and “a mover, she made lots of things happen.”
Julia Pierce owned a millinery shop and also had an interest in Rochester Electric in 1898. She had the first telephone in town and invested in the White River Valley Railroad, affectionately known as the “Peavine,” between Bethel and Rochester. Julia Pierce’s obituary in 1925 called her a “prominent benefactor” of the town.
For the grand opening of Pierce Hall in 1916, a newspaper item described the interior, which included an auditorium with a stage with a “full set of scenery and a drop curtain” on the main floor; a “gracefully curving balcony” and meeting rooms on the upper floor; and a bowling alley, “smoking room,” and toilets in the basement. Perhaps 600 people attended the opening ceremony.
In the intervening century, Pierce Hall changed hands three times while continuing to fulfill Julia Pierce’s vision in a variety of ways. The school district used it for commencement exercises, proms, classrooms and the woodworking shop. The hall hosted, at various times, community suppers, town meeting, movies, rollerskating, dances, traveling theatre troupes, a public health nurse, a piano teacher, a beauty parlor, a pool hall, shows, winter carnival, and fundraising events.
Nancy Woolley remembers Pierce Hall in the 1950s. “It was the place to go,” she said, making Rochester “self-contained, you didn’t have to go anywhere. All your entertainment happened around the town–if it didn’t come here you didn’t have it. Rollerskating was a big deal,” and the night Gene Krupa played Pierce Hall was “the most important thing that had ever happened in town,” in the eyes of a teenage girl.
Julia Pierce’s sons had inherited the property but eventually moved away and deeded Pierce Hall to Rural Lodge #29 F&AM in 1932. The Masons struggled to keep the building up. The steam boiler became too expensive to run, so they replaced it with woodburning furnaces. For 20 years they raised money by showing movies and renting space. To save on heat, the Masons held their meetings in an enclosure in the auditorium, later dubbed “the box.”
The early 1970s were a perilous period for Pierce Hall. In 1970, no longer able to shoulder the burden, the Masons deeded the building to the Rochester School District, reserving the right to continue to use the Lodge room. That year the state fire marshall condemned the building for public use, and the school district proposed at town meeting to transfer it back to the Masons. There was talk it might be torn down. In 1974 the Masonic Lodge regained possession of Pierce Hall in its shabby condition.
In 2001, Pierce Hall got a new lease on life. Having eyed the largely unused building and knowing community space was scarce, a group of Valley residents decided to rehabilitate it and restore its original function as a community center for the five Route 100 towns. They formed the Pierce Hall Community Center, Inc., and in 2004, the Masonic Lodge happily turned over ownership to the new organization in exchange for perpetual use, at no charge, of their own Lodge room, now beautifully restored. The by-laws stipulated that two representatives of the Masonic Lodge would serve on the PHCC board. In an interview with The Mountain Times, Dr. Valerie Levitan, volunteer executive director from 2002 to present and Nancy Sanz, president and a founder of PHCC, agreed that this level of collaboration is unusual.
This arrangement set in motion an ambitious restoration-rehabilitation program that, thanks to determination, elbow grease, and skillful fundraising, is once more fulfilling Julia Pierce’s vision. The work proceeded in phases, literally from the ground up.
“When I walked in, there was snow and ice inside the building,” said Levitan. A perimeter drain was installed and the foundation sealed. The basement was gutted, the old steam boiler and radiators taken out and replaced with a propane-fired hot water system, and a poured concrete floor with radiant heat installed. When the steam boiler was jettisoned, the old cast-iron radiators were kept and others scrounged from scrap houses and converted to use hot water with the new heating system.
There have been plumbing and electrical issues, fire marshall issues, accessibility issues and conservation issues, but as volunteers threw themselves into the task it was found that with their combined skills, most of the work could be accomplished by Valley residents.
In 2005 the Preservation Trust of Vermont reviewed and approved the design concepts and Architect Dick Robson from “just up the road” in Hancock became the project architect and developed the working drawings. Most of the demolition, sweeping-up and refurbishing was done by volunteers from around the Valley.
“We made a list—there were over 400 volunteers,” said Levitan.
Bruce Flewelling, a Mason and retired Forest Service employee, until recently the group’s vice president of buildings and grounds, became the project manager, pitching in with the demolition, maintenance and “a little bit of everything,” he said.
The next phase tackled the auditorium. The balcony was reinforced; acoustics were addressed. The walls had been covered with stamped-tin panels over highly flammable beaverboard, which had to be removed; the panels are now stacked in storage. Tin ceilings are still in place in the auditorium and the office. Wherever practical, the historical features have been kept. The stained-glass panes that frame the stage were cleaned and remounted. Reproduction light fixtures were added to the soffits under the balcony and period-style wall sconces were placed around the auditorium to replace the former ceiling lighting.
The discovery of an original scenic backdrop generated the most excitement. Painted on muslin, it features a pastoral landscape with sheep and an apple tree in bloom, that could be any of the mountain meadows surrounding Rochester. A Burlington-based company was contracted to restore it, and it now hangs on display across the stage. The next step is to apply for a grant to install the machinery to raise and lower it.
In 2012, an exterior elevator and stair tower were constructed to conform to ADA requirements—“it took about a year” to decide on a design, Levitan recalled. A commercial model that can accommodate a hospital gurney was chosen.
After that the organization began to address window replacement and restoration, and the exterior restoration of the main entrance, porte-cochère and semicircular drive. Andrea Murray of Middlebury, another Pierce descendant, was chosen to be the architect for the portico restoration.
Still to be finished are gaps in the auditorium ceiling and stage, auditorium flooring, and the facing on the curving balcony. Final plans include a basement youth center, senior center, and fitness center.
PHCC has raised $2 million to date. Funding sources have included grants from foundations and trusts, state grants and tax credits, contributions from charitable organizations, individuals, families and businesses, fundraiser events, and rental fees for use of the building.
“The cost factor, that’s where we’ve been lucky,” said Levitan, although, she commented, “Codes have hit us because codes change—some things are grandfathered, but the bathrooms cost $11,000 more than we anticipated.”
Thanks to the generosity of the volunteers as well as funders, no money was borrowed, Sanz said, adding, “we paid as we went and so we anticipate to be debt-free at the end.”
By Julia Purdy