by Linda Buermeyer
WELLS RIVER—More than two weeks after a fire devastated a historic school building, it remains to be seen whether the old school will ever be restored. But it is clear that there are a lot of hurdles to overcome.
The flames which burned in the historic schoolhouse in Wells River on July 18 may be symbolic of a smoldering, what some might call, hostility between Lisa Stepancic, the building’s owner and the broader village community.
Stepancic, who moved to Wells River from Denver, Colorado in April 2018, purchased the building in November 2017, with plans to restore it.
At the time, the building housed commercial and residential tenants. She envisioned the first floor for her home and the upper level would be maintained and eventually offered as community meeting spaces.
But she became disillusioned with the lack of goodwill she had hoped to experience in her move.
“When I came to town I was waiting for ‘Welcome to Wells River’ and ‘What are your plans?’”
But she said nobody offered such a greeting.
Stepancic believes that a frozen pipe in the old school on Dec. 30, 2018 did not help. A technician with the heating fuel company pronounced the boiler and water heater were in working order. The problem was beyond the “near boiler” plumbing and a plumber would have to fix it.
Trying to remedy the situation from far away, Stepancic was unable to get a plumber until early January 2019. By then, she said, resentment built up against the “flatlander.”
“Because the pipes were frozen for two weeks, the tenants in the two apartments started coming up short [or were] late paying rent and utilities until both stopped in May,” Stepancic said.
She started eviction proceedings and both apartments were vacated by the end of June. One commercial tenant closed business since there was no hot water. The other commercial tenant, a therapist, stayed until year’s end and then moved to another space in the village.
The loss of tenants prompted some changes in the building’s insurance.
“When I bought the building, it was covered by only a liability policy to protect the owner from claims by tenants and customers,” Stepancic said.
When the tenants left, she cancelled the policy. But finding new insurance proved troublesome. According to Stepancic, several insurers told her they would not write a standard homeowner’s policy, citing the age of the building.
“I gave up,” she said.
Wells River historian Hod Symes attended school in the building. He graduated from Wells River High School in 1951. He said he knows of older buildings in Wells River, “wooden buildings at that, which have been insured.”
Is any of building salvageable?
Stepancic thinks so.
“It is if I could find somebody to do the work,” she said. “I can’t even get an estimate much less somebody to replace it.”
Stepancic and her friend Dave Durkee have started cleaning up the debris. She said they appreciate the large trailer and bin that Chad Roy provided the day after the fire.
Will the village community help with the restoration?
It does not appear likely.
“I think that the wider Wells River community would be hesitant to donate any money at this time because of the recent history and the fact that several years of back taxes are owed to the village,” said Wells River resident Richard Roderick.
Many in the community would like to see school brought back to its former glory.
“But I am afraid it won’t happen now,” he said.
“I honestly do not know of anyone even vaguely interested in helping the current owner,” Symes said. “True restoration would cost far more than the owner paid for the building.”
“I believe it was enjoyed by the community as a special building, both historically and architecturally, but its usefulness to the community was lost when this owner removed the commercial tenants and apartment dwellers, leaving it a private, non-taxpaying, residence,” he added.
According to Stepancic, “Restoration is not important to the village. It doesn’t care what happens to this building. Since the fire, no one is a position of authority, no one from the town, village or historical society has contacted me. I am not going to pay for restoration because I don’t think the village deserves it.”
The hot fire spread quickly through the 148-year-old building and destroyed the bell tower and the mansard roof, resulting in interior cave-ins.
What the fire did not damage, water from the firefighting did.
“Fire departments from Woodsville, Bath, Newbury and Wells River responded quickly and worked very hard to put out the fire,” Stepancic said.
She is grateful for the immediate response from Chad and Chris Roy who came running the moment they saw the smoke and also to Rev. James and Mrs. Kendall Merriam who offered shelter next door in the Wells River Congregational Church.
Stepancic thought it would be an overnight stay since the lower floor of the school building was not touched by the fire; however, the water damage proved to be too much.
Not wanting to impose on the Merriams’ hospitality for an extended time, Stepancic and Durkee bought a used motorhome which is now situated in the side yard of the school.
For possible help, Stepancic contacted the state historic preservation officials. She was asked if she would consider donating the building for low-income housing.
“I said ‘OK,’” she said. But she said take too much work to meet the strict public housing requirements.
“I was discouraged very quickly. With each day, I don’t see myself staying here,” she said.
“Living in Wells River has been an unpleasant, disappointing experience. I don’t know if I was singled-out or that the treatment I received is standard operating procedure for native and foreigner alike. Either way, I’m not going to gift these people a restored schoolhouse.”
Everyone is sad, former students, owners, and people who just enjoyed the building being there as a symbol of bygone days. Certainly Stepancic is too.
The property was recently listed on Trulia for $286,700, but has been pulled off the market.
It will be difficult, if not impossible, to sell now.
Republished with permission from the Journal-Opinion, the weekly community newspaper for Orange County and surrounding towns. Email: email@example.com
Categories: Society & Culture