By Julia Purdy
RUTLAND—On Friday, Nov. 4, 2016, NeighborWorks of Western Vermont opened its second completely renovated private home at 59 Baxter Street to the public in an open house aimed at attracting a buyer and informing the community of the transformation of run-down houses throughout Rutland’s lower-income Northwest Neighborhood. The first project of this kind took place at 120 Library Avenue and has been sold. Two other houses—at 39 Pine Street and 128 Library Avenue—are in various stages of being rebuilt from the bottom up and the inside out. Three more will follow.
The program is part of a concerted effort to rescue and revitalize the 16-block area bounded by Crescent, Grove, and State streets and East Creek. The neighborhood, which goes back to the 1880’s, has been stigmatized in recent years by drug trafficking and deterioration.
Ludy Biddle, executive director of NeighborWorks, traced the beginning of the rebirth to Project Vision, an initiative of the Rutland Police Department under Chief James Baker that grew out of Carly Ferro’s death on Cleveland Avenue in 2012 as a result of an impaired driver who had been huffing aerosol and lost control of his car. The tragedy was a flash point that galvanized community opposition to rampant drug use in Rutland and forced the recognition that the conditions that invite drug traffic must be eliminated.
The result has been a renewed sense of pride and optimism, not only in the neighborhood but throughout the city. With the involvement of many residents, a new playground and community garden were established. The city has targeted blighted houses for demolition, opening pockets of green space along the streets.
Door-to-door surveys to measure community impact were carried out in 2013 and 2016. Forty-four volunteers knocked on over 500 doors. While drugs remained the most frequently mentioned issue, remarks by the residents were much more positive in 2016; community involvement and neighborliness were both up; satisfaction with municipal services soared; and the majority of respondents felt “very safe in their homes during the day.”
This latest project on 39 Pine Street is the third house—and her second, after Baxter Street—to undergo a complete makeover. The former two-family house, a tax foreclosure which was deeded to NeighborWorks by the city, will be converted back to a single-family dwelling. This job has involved removing a rear two-story addition and exterior staircase and rebuilding the interior staircase from the floor up. The entire interior has been gutted down to the 19th-century balloon frame. Like 59 Baxter St., the first floor is now an open plan to take best advantage of energy-efficiency features, while the second floor remains with its original floor plan and window placement.
The previous two rehab projects took five months; 39 Pine St. is expected to be ready for sale in mid-spring, 2017.
Morgan Overable is the on-site project manager for LaborWorks, a subprogram of NeighborWorks. Overable learned the trade working with her father and grandfather since childhood. She earned a B.A. in fine arts, then asked herself: “What do I do now?” She said hands-on is “the best way to learn.” Nancy Scarcello would agree. A set designer for the Rutland Youth Theater, she was hired in September as a carpenter-laborer. She pulls a lot of nails and lugs a lot of scrap but loves participating in the transformation from a derelict house to an efficient and attractive home. She finds the work “meaningful and fulfilling—creative and productive at the same time.”
Overable explained that this job is atypical in that she must preserve certain style elements. She said she doesn’t have to fully restore everything but must create close matches. She will keep the wood clapboards, interior trim, shaped shingle gables, jigsawed gingerbread on front porch, and the maple flooring in first floor. The original gable windows were bordered with colored glass insets, which will be duplicated. A rear porch has been built with period turned posts and the gracious front porch is being restored conservatively.
Overable’s father, Gregg Over, is a contractor with three decades of experience in remodeling and now works as the home repair specialist out of the West Rutland NeighborWorks location. He explained that when public funds are involved, Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1976 requires a preliminary review of proposed projects that might affect historical or potentially historically important buildings. The house at 39 Pine Street is listed in the comprehensive Historic Architecture of Rutland County, published by the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, and qualifies for this scrutiny.
Gregg Over hired an accredited architectural consultant, Suzanne Jamele, who prepared a list of features to be preserved or reproduced, based on old photographs and what was left intact. “If the house is an integral part of the surrounding area then they really like you to keep it,” Over said.
The “surrounding area” is one of sizeable, late-19th century middle-class homes, built for downtown merchants, businessmen and their employees. Just off State Street, the stately brick Kingsley School of 1888 was built to house the first “graded school” in Rutland. It was done in the popular Queen Anne style, which was repeated around the neighborhood in homes that feature curving front porches, “gingerbread” trim and turned posts. The neighborhood appeared peaceful and inviting on a sunny autumn afternoon.
The Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, within the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD), oversees projects funded by state or federal monies. In this case, ACCD provided a grant of $1.25 million, matched by NeighborWorks from various sources and the City of Rutland, in the amount of $1.205 million.
The overall grant has two phases, Over said. Phase One saw the demolition of four blighted houses; Phase Two includes the acquisition and rehabilitation of seven properties to minimum HUD Section 8 standards, “but we exceed those,” he said.
So far, two houses have been finished, with one of them already sold—120 Library Ave. and 59 Baxter St.; two are now under construction—39 Pine St. and 128 Library Ave. The remaining three, on Park Avenue, were recently seized by the federal government after the absentee landlord failed to address drug trafficking at the properties and will be turned over to NeighborWorks for rehabilitation and resale.
The objective is to reclaim the neighborhood through pride of ownership by reselling the rehabilitated single-family homes on favorable terms to qualifying owner-occupants.
Is it possible to bring Northwest Neighborhood all the way back to the peaceful, attractive streets of yesteryear? Biddle said the neighborhood could be brought all the way back—its “bones are charming”—but warned of gentrification, which can put affordable housing out of reach. She also observed that the problem is not limited to the Northwest Neighborhood but that the neighborhood was “targeted strategically” as a beginning of a transformation, which will grow “incrementally.”
Photo by Julia Purdy
On-site project manager Morgan Overable measures out a staircase at 39 Pine St.