By STEVEN JUPITER
BRANDON—The massive building looms over downtown Brandon, perched up on Seminary Hill—named for the 1830s “seminary” that once stood across the street—inviting locals and visitors alike to wonder about its history and current condition. A bit overgrown and rough, the old Brandon High School (BHS) has been the subject of rampant speculation for years. What’s it like inside? What will become of it? Who even owns it?
The owner is Frank “Chip” Briscoe, Jr., an historic preservationist originally from Texas, whose roller-coaster relationship with the building goes back to the early 2000s, when sculptor friends of his bought it with the idea of creating a live/work studio space. The challenges of the property sank in, and preservation-minded Briscoe ended up buying a 50% stake from them, and then the other 50%, leaving him the sole owner of this hulking brick behemoth that was decades removed from anything that could be called its heyday.
Briscoe labored for years to figure out how to restore the building but constantly ran up against the economic realities of a gigantic structure that needed to be repurposed as well as restored. An early partnership with the nonprofit NeighborWorks of Western Vermont seemed promising, but the costs of construction soon exceeded the nonprofit’s comfort zone. And then a favorable construction loan that was days away from closing fell through when Wall Street collapsed in 2008, ushering in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. No one wanted to touch the project.
Things deteriorated further when a town-wide property reappraisal raised the value of the building and the tax liability increased 1,600%. Briscoe ended up losing the school. He became friendly with the new owner and eventually rebought the place in 2017. His preservationist’s heart just couldn’t let go. Meanwhile, the building sank further and further into disrepair.
Finally, though, there seems to be a viable, albeit ambitious, plan in the works to bring the building back from the brink.
“I’ve been associated with this building for about 20 years,” Briscoe said recently in the cavernous former classroom that currently acts as an office/meeting area. “I’m very excited by what’s going on with it now.”
Briscoe has partnered with Jeff Dordozzi, an experienced, local builder who is a principal in Living Structure, which describes itself as an “autonomous architecture collective dedicated to empowering people and communities to directly participate in creating their built environments.” The idea behind the partnership is to turn the old Brandon High School into a combination of residential and community spaces that will help fulfill several needs in the local area: affordable housing for middle-income people, public space for the community, and the rehabilitation of an important, historic building in dire need of restoration.
Though Dordozzi comes to the project with years of experience, he recognizes and even embraces the challenges.
“It’s a difficult building from a financial perspective,” he said. “There’s a lot of non-monetizable space. A lot of solutions being offered are not solutions.”
The solution that Briscoe and Dordozzi are proposing is to create a nonprofit called reBHS (re-envisioning Brandon High School) that will undertake the rehabilitation of the building with the goal of establishing a co-housing community and eventually purchasing the building from Briscoe. reBHS is composed of community members and the other partners in Living Structure: Joy Marcotte, Beth Weeden, and Jill Pariseault. reBHS has also brought on Allen Pierce, an architect who teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia. At a recent planning session at the high school, about a dozen people showed up to have pizza and brainstorm next steps, with Mr. Pierce on Zoom.
To make the project financially feasible, some of the physical work will need to be done by members of reBHS. But the members of the group seem ready to roll up their sleeves:
“I’ve met so many people fascinated with the building and who want to see something done with it,” said Dan Brett, a local artist who shows at the Brandon Artists Guild (BAG). “Now we have a chance to make that a reality.”
Kevin Booth, who works in the science departments at Middlebury College, said, “The sense of style these people bring to it…If you’ve seen the work they’ve done, you know what they’ll do here will have class and refinement.” Living Structure helped Booth with his own house.
“I can see how it can have a huge positive impact on the community,” said David Martin, a Brandon resident and one of the founding members of BAG.
“The physical world is something we’re constantly involved with,” added Paul Marr Hilliard. “I’m just fascinated by this building.”
Dordozzi himself can wax poetic about the building, remarking on its “spiritual aspect,” calling it “a remarkable masterpiece,” and wishing that “kids today could learn in rooms like these.”
The building was put up in 1916, designed by architect Elmer Bailey as one of the earliest “modern” high schools in the country. As America shifted out of the 19th-century, there was a concurrent shift in education, with an emphasis on science (BHS had a dedicated school science lab) and physical education (BHS had the largest gymnasium in Vermont when it opened).
The building today is almost literally a shell of its former self. Water damage, vandalism, and deferred maintenance required that almost all the walls be stripped down to the studs. But the place is still undeniably intriguing. The two curved stairwells between the main floors and the wide main corridors still retain something poignant, evoking the memory of all the students who passed through between 1916 and 1961. While the poor condition of the building has been an enticing mystery to some, it also gave rise to rumors of squatters and drug use and caused others in the community to doubt Briscoe’s vision.
But Briscoe and Dordozzi have set their sights on 2024 as the year when big changes will come to BHS. They need to get certain work in the building completed by July of 2024 in order to take advantage of state tax credits that will end up providing significant funds for further renovations. The most important of this work is to bring the building up to code and to restore the façade.
Bringing the building up to code, including accessibility issues, is necessary to obtain a certificate of occupancy, and the work on the façade is seen as a morale booster and a way to show the community that positive change is underway. The exterior work will respect the historical importance of the building but will also provide a fresh face for a new chapter in the building’s history.
Half of the expansive main floor will eventually contain public spaces that can be used for events, performances (on a recent night, the strains of a vintage electric organ filled the air), and exhibitions. The rest of that floor, plus the second floor, will be used for rental units on a co-housing model, which means that the tenants will have their private space but the kitchen will be shared. The basement level, which has direct exterior access, will include studio spaces, workshops, perhaps even a café.
“It’s not going to be the kind of place where you come home and just shut your door,” said Dordozzi. reBHS sees its mission as creating a community, a “live/work/cultural hub.” The goal is to avoid the purely money-driven gentrification of many such projects and instead turn BHS into a “cultural artifact.”
reBHS is still in its early phases and the group is actively seeking funding and new members interested in helping bring this vision to fruition. A request for ARPA funds at the last meeting of the Brandon Selectboard was not successful but was not rejected outright, either. It was clear that Briscoe and Dordozzi had piqued the interest of some of the Board members.
After all the years of speculation, it looks like there may finally be a light at the end of the hallway, so to speak.
Anyone interested in learning more about reBHS, becoming a member, or simply sharing memories of their time at Brandon High School should contact Joy Marcotte at firstname.lastname@example.org.