January 21, 2010

Hall of High Hopes

Ken Gould reflects on the effort to restore Derry's old town hall.

Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY -- Margi Ives can see the future from where she's standing, her arms loaded with construction debris as she stands in the shadow of the old town hall.
     "Now that the East Derry Village Improvement Society owns this, and it abuts all this, people will be able to use not only the hall, but the land as well," she says, arms too full to point toward the 36 acres of conservation land known as Shepard Park, spreading out in all directions behind the Upper Village Hall. 
      Ives was one of about a dozen volunteer laborers who spent Saturday ripping out old wall boards and hauling useless piles of wood to a Dumpster, the first major cleanup effort since the town sold the former town hall to EDVIS for $1. Since then, the top priority has been to get electric and plumbing repaired and up to code, said Paul Dionne.
     "We have a fire inspection Tuesday. We're hoping all goes well because we've applied for an assembly permit. That means once it passes inspection we can start renting out the upstairs," says Dionne, taking a break from the tedious task of prying well-nailed ceiling tiles from a matrix of wooden beams. Dionne says the group is on target so far, making progress with the various cleanup and fix-up projects.  
     "We'd like this to be our money-maker," says Dionne of the basement. "We have an architect, and we're working on what we want it to look like."
     Upstairs plans include a catering kitchen, Dionne says. 
     "We already have people lined up to rent the upstairs space, a dance company and a workout club, some church groups. So we're moving in the right direction," Dionne says.  
     Ginny True and Elizabeth Ives were upstairs undecorating the hall, which had been decked for Christmas.
     "Once spring comes we can start getting more done outside. Right now we're just doing what we can with what we have," True says. She walks into the spacious main room, its dusty wood floor in need of a good waxing, but otherwise in good shape. In the rear you can still see scars on the wall outlining where a stage had once been, something the group would like to replace. True points out the huge propane heater suspended from the ceiling in the front corner, ready to warm things up. It will be nice to revive the town spirit that, for years, circulated throughout the building, she says.
     "It's too nice a building to destroy. Just based on its history alone. It's always been the center of East Derry. We have people stopping by all the time to help, and to give us some great ideas about what to use the building for," says True, looking around the empty space as if visualizing its potential. "We hope to hold some fundraisers soon, and we're looking into some grants. So we're moving up a couple steps of the ladder, but we still have a long climb ahead," True says.  
     On the second floor Ken Gould sips coffee from a Styrofoam cup. The morning sun streams in the window and pours across the room, illuminating the wood grain in the floor boards. He has been marveling at the sturdy molding around the doors.
     "You can just imagine, when they were building this back in the late 1800s, that they wanted to make it a nice building. They used the best wood. The mill work is really beautiful," Gould said. "They weren't building a building. They were building a community." 
      Gould was the one who kept vigil during several town council meetings in the months before the sale, waiting for word on whether the town was going to go forward. After several sessions with the town attorney to work through some of the legalities and fine-tune the language, the hall was sold to the group for a dollar in October.  
     "It was a good feeling to know we got over that hurdle. I'll admit, I am a little nervous about paying the bills. It's one thing to buy a place like this for a dollar; it's another to pay the bills going forward," Gould says. He sips his coffee a few more times and looks comfortable, despite the cold, leaning against the door jamb. His breath hangs visibly in the air as a cloud of vapor each time he exhales.
      "Sure is quite a view, though," he says, peering down from the second-story window before heading back downstairs. Every room is in decent shape, if you overlook the occasional holes or water stained ceiling tiles. Certainly it is rough around the edges -- Saturday's work session left the basement an empty shell, which actually was an improvement.  
     "It's a beautiful day out here, and we are getting a lot accomplished," says Dave McPherson, who was toting a toilet to the Dumpster in a wheelbarrow. "We are always looking for volunteers -- and money. Money is good." 
 Anyone interested in volunteering should contact the group via e-mail at uppervillagehall@comcast.net or by phone at 434-6723.

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