from the InterTown Record, Feb. 21, 2017
“The largest and handsomest business block by far in our village is the new Odd Fellows’ building that is just approaching completion…”
– Kearsarge Independent, April 1, 1892
By Ray Carbone
WARNER – After almost 20 years and multiple development plans – and spending more than $50,000 – town leaders may have finally found the person who can restore and renovate the historic Odd Fellows Building by looking right down the road.
At a public hearing before the board of selectmen in town hall last Tuesday (Feb. 14), Warner native and resident Nate Burrington, of Burlington Builders and Maintenance, announced his intention to purchase the 125-year-old wooden village structure from the town. He plans to restore and renovate the 72’-by-42’, three-story building on his own, and use it primarily for his personal and business needs.
“I think we can do it,” Burrington said late last week. “I think it’s a good building, and even if I don’t make a ton of money (on the renovation), it should be in Warner.”
Burrington said he has experience repurposing old structures locally, including the adjacent Schoodacs Coffee & Tea building and several homes in the Bradford area. His tentative plans are to restore the local building’s first floor and use it for his building contracting business, probably a combination office and workshop. The third floor, which Burrington said has a gorgeous and unique view of the community, could become residential space for one or two tenants, he said.
And if stabilizing the second floor proves too difficult, the contractor might take it out and allow the first floor to have a high ceiling; the building’s many windows will flood the space with natural lighting.
He’s proposing a six-year project estimated to cost between $300,00 and $400,000. “It would all be out-of-pocket; no bank would give me the money right now,” he said He said he will do most of the work himself and that, as a contractor, he’ll be able to make use of left-over materials from other projects.
“This is probably the first real bright spot we’ve had in a long time.”
– Jim McLaughlin, chairman of the Warner Odd Fellows Building Committee.
Town administrator Jim Bingham agreed with Burrington that the 19th century Church Street building is structurally sound. “The most serious pollution issue on the site has already been resolved,” he noted, referring to an environmental cleanup project completed about five years ago.
The town has resolved a drainage problem in the area that hampered earlier proposals, and allowing the new building owner to have nine spaces in the village area will rectify a shortage of available parking.
Burrington said he wants to seek grant support to restore the iconic clock tower – and, perhaps, the slate roofing. And he plans to shore-up the foundation; earlier proposal called for raising the building to install a new foundation. Both ideas will keep the renovation within reasonable costs, he said.
It was back in 1892 that local businessmen, who were members of the local Central Lodge of the international Fraternal Order of Odd Fellows, built the handsome facility. Jim McLaughlin, chairman of the town’s building committee, said its design and structure are unique to the region.
“It’s amazing how it was put together,” he said. “There’s not any other buildings like this in New England.”
The Odd Fellows and the local Masons, another fraternal organization – used the village structure until 1964. Since then, it’s served as everything from an industrial arts classroom to commercial space to private housing. A variety of owners used it until 1998 but after Bruce Martin, who lived and rented out rooms in the building, passed away in the late 1990s, some townspeople were afraid the Odd Fellows building would be purchased and demolished by a developer.
The town bought it for $50,000 in 1999, and a committee of residents was formed to find a way to maintain, renovate and reuse the Odd Fellows building. The group worked with several developers as well as myriad government agencies and grant organizations but was unable to find a program that would work. Proposals ranged from developing the space for commercial use to workforce housing to elderly housing however none were able to find the financial backing need
As recently as the February 2 budget committee hearing, Rebecca Courser, director of the Warner Historical Society and a longtime proponent for saving the Odd Fellows building spoke in favor of a petition article that would ask the selectmen to begin looking into ways to take the structure down. Courser said she was concerned about the safety of the empty wooden building after so many years of futility. (Residents will consider the petition at the annual town meeting next month.)
Burrington said that his approach – doing the work himself and utilizing the building, rather than looking for a big profit down the road – will work where other plans have not.
Bingham reported that about 25 people attended Tuesday’s hearing and most were appreciate of the local man’s idea. “It seemed like there was a strong level of support for transferring the property to the contractor,” he said.
One issue that still concerns the selectmen is a timeline for completing the work, Bingham explained. They want some recourse if Burlington is unable to fulfill his part of the sales agreement, Bingham said. “So they’re looking into how they can work that into an arrangement that obligates the contractor to meet certain deadline on rehabbing the building.
“That being said, the board and myself are walking away (from initial negotiations) fairly optimistic,” Bingham added.
Building committee chairman McLaughlin, who was at the meeting, is even more enthusiastic. “This is probably the first real bright spot we’ve had in a long time,” he said.
The selectmen hope to release more information about Burrington’s proposal – including the “token price” he would pay the town for the building – at their next public hearing on Wednesday, March 1, at 7 p.m. in the town hall.
Ray Carbone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.