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Katharine Wroth is a senior writer at Grist.org. Her work has appeared in Special Places and other publications.
Meltsner says about 100 properties that once served as poor farms still stand across the state, which had a high of 230 such facilities in the late 1800s. Many of those that remain are at risk – as a multi-year controversy in Milton, which ended with the sale of 30 acres to a housing development company last year, vividly demonstrated. Intent on protecting a property that is, in Meltsner’s words, a “ravishing riverside landscape,” The Trustees worked with the local historical commission to ensure that the new plans honor the building’s legacy. “We are being very respectful of its historical significance,” says Jim Younger, Director of Structural Resources and Technology, who is overseeing the restoration. “It’s seen a real evolution of uses over time, and there’s evidence of that in its bones.”
Younger says the restoration – which is adhering to green-building principles that will make it a model of energy efficiency – has revealed some fascinating details, such as the original footprint of the house, which was half its current size, and old stone walkways that had sunk into the shifting landscape over time. The latter were discovered by students from the Archaeology Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, which conducted a dig at the site in the spring.
Wherever possible, the renovation crew is restoring and reusing original materials, Younger says. They removed and rebuilt the front stairway, shored up the basement, and reshingled part of the exterior. New features such as an energy-recovery ventilation system and super-insulated attic will ensure that the building’s indoor air quality is high even as its energy costs are low. The landscape is benefitting from the green features, too: a system for collecting rainwater from the farmhouse roof in an underground, 1,500-gallon cistern will provide water for the property’s community gardens.
“The greenest building is one that’s already built,” says Younger, who has also managed green-leaning renovations for The Trustees at Appleton Farms in Ipswich and the Bullitt Reservation in Ashfield, as well as construction of the LEED-Gold Doyle Center in Leominster. “We took steps that anyone can take,” such as weatherizing windows instead of replacing them, he says.
The organization held a public opening of the building in late October, with Trustees and WLCT staff shifting their operations to the new site by the end of the year. But back in early fall, with work still underway, Dubois was left to imagine how the rooms might look with desks and conference tables in place. One detail not left to the imagination was the way an upstairs window framed the expanse of rolling farmland, stone walls, and gleaming river below – a view, Dubois notes, that is the best one in the house.
“This is a unique project for us,” says Dubois, who values the opportunity it has provided to work closely with the community, which has embraced it in many ways, from overwhelmingly supportive town votes, to an outpouring of volunteers at the community garden, to the increasing number of daily visitors. As important, “the restoration was made possible through a private fundraising effort lead by The Trustees and WLCT,” says Dubois. She hopes more people will take time to discover the property’s wonders. “This is truly a special place.”