Friday, July 12, 2013

the rhythm of a gentle bossa nova...

My little town is undergoing some big changes. Again. It's always undergoing some big changes. Again. When I first moved here in 1995, I can remember crossing a dangerous intersection (nicknamed "malfunction junction", of course) by looking at the license plate of the oncoming car. If the plate was Vermont's you could just go, the person driving the car would stop to let you cross. If the plate betrayed a New Hampshire origin, you waited - that driver would run you over. If it was Massachusetts, Connecticut, or New Jersey it was best to go in the opposite direction. All of that changed not long after September 11th, 2001 when there was a large influx of metropolitan expatriates. Within months, every time one of us got behind the wheel of our cars, we had to practice defensive driving to counteract the interlopers' offensive driving. Then they discovered that it was cheaper (and easier) to register their cars here; suddenly all the offensives had Vermont plates too. That was the tip off that things had changed beyond simple second home ownership.

Just off the main intersection of our town's Main Street (which runs parallel to the Connecticut River) is Brown and Roberts, a beloved local hardware store. But it's not just any hardware store. It's the kind of place where there are huge old wood filing cabinets which stand on old wood floors; the cabinets' many small drawers are full of various sizes of nuts, bolts, washers and other useful paraphernalia which can be purchased by the each rather than having to buy a huge box of something or other, most of whose contents will never be used. Buy what you need, not what you don't.
Brown and Roberts during the Strolling of the Heifers in 2011. The store to the picture's left, which used to be an A&P,
is now home to a florist and the Chamber of Commerce. To the far left you can see a little of the tower at the Brooks House.
When I first moved here, someone I knew was looking for one of those handles which one uses to lift the lids off of old woodstoves. They were hoping I could find one at one of the local flea markets. I went to Brown and Roberts, and sure enough they had a couple on hand. I know someone who bought a power lawnmower there. When they went to pick it up, it was already fully assembled - and came with a full tank of gas. It's that kind of place. A Home Depot opened in a strip mall on the edge of town, and couldn't compete. It seems people preferred the service they got at Brown and Roberts over the cheaper price they could get at Home Depot. The store is in the old Montgomery Ward building. While a number of people of a (ahem) certain age may remember the Montgomery Ward mail order catalogue, many don't know that there was also a small chain of retail department stores.

Progress Lighting the Way for Commerce 
The building's exterior here even has the "Progress Lighting the Way for Commerce" medallion designed for Montgomery Ward by sculptor J. Massey Rhind. When I first moved to town, the side of the building next to the Baptist Church had a large faded painted "Montgomery Ward" sign across the top. I'm sure I photographed it, but I can't find the pic anywhere. It has since completely faded away, or perhaps it was removed when they cleaned the building's exterior awhile back. It has just been announced that the business is being sold. The Putnam family has owned it for the last oh, fourty years or so. I don't know this for sure, but I assume that the "A.F. Roberts" that used to advertise in the local paper in the 1930s and 1940s is the original business.  In other words, it's been around for awhile. The purchaser owns several other hardware stores further upstate. It is being said that some members of the current ownership family are to stay on. I've been through enough of these kinds of purchases to know that they will most likely be forced out within a year and then watch out... but I'm going to keep my fingers crossed that the business survives with only minor changes. Now, as it happens, my radio show this week will include a 15 minute broadcast by the Ink Spots from July 12, 1939. I include such a broadcast just about every week, and usually read from the local newspaper of the day of the featured broadcast. The following, taken from microfilm, are part of my files from our local paper during mid July of 1939.

Note the old 3 digit telephone number. As with the ad below, if you right click
on the graphic, you can open a much larger easier to read version in a new window.

Another big happening, hopefully of a positive nature, is that a consortium of architects, lawyers and money has finally put all the pieces in place to take possession and begin rehabilitation of the Brooks House. The Brooks was once a luxury hotel, and was the largest "Second Empire" style building outside of New York City. It had restaurants, various stores, meeting rooms, and a ballroom. It is the largest commercial building in town to this very day, and dominates the main block and corner of downtown. It's Main Street façade used to have a two story wrought iron veranda over 40 feet long. When it was built, no expense was spared - it was in many ways a gift to the town by a resident who had gone to California and returned a wealthy man.

Brattleboro has always loved a parade. The wrought iron balcony on the
Brooks Hotel must have been a great place from which to watch one.

In the late 1800's, social events held there were regularly reported upon in the Boston and New York City newspapers. Mr. Brooks also donated a beautiful library to the town, which was torn down to become a parking lot for the US Post Office and Courthouse.

The original Brooks Library, long gone.
By 1970, the hotel had fallen on hard times and was "rescued" by someone who bought it, stripped it of its architectural details, and turned the rooms and suites into cheap apartments. Eventually his son took it over. I have met people in town who to this day have not forgiven that family for what they did to the building. And that was before the horrible fire in April 2011 which destroyed the roof and much of the interior. The exterior walls of the place were fine, as they were made of extraordinarily sturdy locally kilned redbrick, and were 16" thick on the first two floors, with the third floor being 14" thick. My dear friend Laura, over at Austanspace, used to live there and moved out two weeks before the fire, which displaced close to 80 people who lost everything.

- from 1942 -
"Community Owned"

Our local community radio station, WVEW-lp, had its studio, transmitter and antenna there. We lost everything too, and were off the air for just about a year. We almost lost our license, returning to broadcast mode one week before such an event would have occurred. The revamped Brooks House will still be a mixed use building. The first two floors are expected to be expanded local branches of two commuter colleges. The original architectural drawings put the branch of the Community College of Vermont in the old hotel kitchen and workers' quarters in the back wing on the parking lot. Those drawings haven't been updated, and were done before the State put in a considerable amount of money to consolidate and expand the colleges. The other two floors (actually a floor and a half) will be apartments; most will rent in a price range of around $2,000.00 a month. The original proposal also included a few special low priced apartments - provided the potential resident meets low income guidelines, they could get a place at only $950.00 a month! I don't know who they think will be able to afford such rents, but they are allegedly 90% booked.

The fire at the back of the building, center mansard - April 2011
I don't quite recall where this picture and the one above came from,
but they aren't mine. I think they were from a local paper.
The Brooks has been sitting empty and partially boarded up for over two years now.
Another big change will veer a little more towards the restoration department. Our beloved movie theatre, the Latchis, will close its original screen (the largest operating screen left in Vermont) for a couple of months while the seats and the ceiling are repaired. The theatre is part of another hotel complex, one of the few art deco buildings in the state. What is said to be the theatre's old "crying room" (for mothers toting infants, soundproofed with a window to see the screen and with sound piped in) became a second screen. The old ballroom upstairs was cut in half, and one part became a third screen. The other half still sits there unused, and since the closing of the other local theatre (a miserable excuse for a movie house, a fourplex which was originally a Jerry Lewis Twin) there has been discussion of making it into another screen. An attached storefront became a small fourth screen recently. The theatre used to be a small affair with an entrance just off the corner of Main street on Flat Street. In 1938, as an answer to the then big bucks Paramount Theatre which had opened the year before, the present hotel and theatre complex was built as a tribute to the head of the Latchis family who had emigrated to America and started in business with an outdoor fruit stand on that same corner.
The original Latchis Theatre, on the corner of Flat Street and Main.

The Latchis just after opening in 1938.

From 1945, showing the marquee which had been added over the hotel entrance.
The foyer floor is terrazzo marble (used throughout the hotel), the auditorium walls have frescoes depicting Greek myths, the ceiling has wood inlays depicting the constellations and contains long broken "starlight" bulb enclosures. When I moved to town, the theatre had a huge cinemascope screen built in front of the old proscenium. (Cinemascope used to require curved screens to be shown properly without distortion; they weren't as deep as Cinerama screens though.) The Cinemascope screen was dirty and had rips and holes in it. I befriended the projectionist and began a whispering campaign - almost everything shown there would fit within the reaches of the old proscenium. It wasn't too long before the cinemascope screen was torn down, and a new screen was fitted within the proscenium, improving the image considerably. I don't know if I played any part in that decision, but I'd like to think I did.

Nice little mock up someone made of the auditorium with a picture on-screen. The only problem is that 'Casablanca' was presented in a different frame ratio (closer to a square image) than the widescreen style presented here, which cuts off much of the image. For the film series I ran there, we managed to track down the proper lenses to do things right.

Back in the day the Latchis Theatre was the first cinema outside of a major city to play 'Gone With the Wind'. When the 'Wizard of Oz' was shown there, some of the Muchkins participated in a special parade which marched down Main Street to the Theatre to welcome the movie to town. For a few years, I ran a Sunday afternoon classic and art film series there. Our first film? The then newly made IB Technicolor print of 'Wizard of Oz', of course. (It was the first IB process Technicolor print made in over 30 years. It was glorious, even better than earlier old IB prints I'd seen. Including myself, there were four people in the audience - the theatre manager didn't like the idea and 'forgot' to put the special screening in their ad. The Paramount (which burned out in the early 1990's) would show serials on the weekend, but the Latchis had stage shows with a minimum of 5 acts of Vaudeville. The non-profit which now owns the complex has plans to eventually rebuild and update the stage and dressing room areas. Now if they would only fix the balcony. (The 700 seat auditorium would then seat close to 1200.) The following short video shows a good bit of the theatre's interior.

Another local business, Renew Salvage, which used to strip architectural and reusable pieces of old buildings being rehabbed or torn down, for sale to builders and restorers, has just closed its doors.
Town government is going through changes too with the election of a, how shall I put this? - bizarre group of people to the Selectboard. Not long after the last round of elections, one Selectman suddenly got a new job elsewhere and resigned. (If I'd been in better health I'd have helped him pack up if it could have gotten him out of here quicker.) His appointed replacement was the lowest vote getting candidate in the last election, the one who doesn't know anything about the town or town government. The guy who missed by just a few votes wasn't appointed. Nor was the guy who lost by a slightly larger margin. The current Board wanted someone who would "go along". Then our Town Manager suddenly got a different job and resigned. Brattleboro has gone through a lot in the years I've lived here. I moved here just after a Walmart had opened across the river in New Hampshire. They'd wanted to have a store in Vermont, but the state refused to have them. So they built across the river where they could destroy the economy of the downtown of the area which is said to be the state's biggest financial generator. They almost succeeded. Brattleboro fought back, starting with "buy local" campaigns in the late 1990's, promoting ourselves as an art town, using the Latchis for film series and live events, a first Friday of the month downtown Gallery Walk, & etc. We've weathered quite a few storms (literal and figurative) since then. Whatever is or isn't happening, it seems more and more evident that big money is moving into Brattleboro. I begin to wonder how many years are left before those of us on smaller incomes, some of the very people who worked so hard to help keep the town vital, will be forced out. I hope it doesn't come to that.


Anonymous said...

The passing of time means change. Can't be stopped. Sometimes change is for the better, sometimes not. Thanks for the tour from past to present.

Geo. said...

When I was little, my favorite pictorial compendium was the Monkey Ward Catalog. When a store opened here in the '60s, it was a very busy place! Big box outlets dwarfed it by and by. I believe it's a bird house now.

sdt (a.k.a. stevil) said...

mbj/Delores - glad you liked the tour. I want to do a few more posts of this nature, which I expect to rediscover 10 or more years from now - I'll read my speculative ranting with a nostalgic eye twinkle and slap my forehead with my palm as I say to no one in particular, "well that was stupid of me"...

sdt (a.k.a. stevil) said...

Geo - We got both the Sears catalogue and the Ward's. I liked the Ward's better - except at Christmastime. Sears' "wishbook" of toys received most of my attention. My hometown was too small for such stores, although we did have a "5 & 10". The telephone exchange was on the 2nd (top) floor of that building - I can still recall being taken to see the operators and the mess of wires and plugs they dealt with to connect our calls.