Two and a half years after a fire gutted a historic 19th-century house in downtown Waterbury, the old structure met its demise last week, as a wrecking crew brought down nearly all of what remained of the original building. Its demolition marks the end of a two-year battle to save the historic house, which once belonged to Vermont's most famous Civil War hero. But its new developers say that the antebellum house will rise again.
Today, little remains of the original structure other than its front door and columns, a small amount of brickwork and an engraved granite plaque. The house, which was built in 1850 and was once listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was the birthplace and longtime home of William Wells, Vermont's most prominent Civil War hero. Wells was born and raised in Waterbury, enlisted as a private in the First Vermont Cavalry, and later rose to the rank of general. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his exploits on the battle of Gettysburg, where a statue of him now stands. A similar statue in Burlington's Battery Park commemorates Wells' military exploits, as does a plaque in the Vermont Statehouse.
In recent years, the building earned a less favorable reputation as a seedy inn for transients and low-income residents. Between 1989 and December 2002, when it was gutted by a fire, the building was known as the Gateway Motel, an establishment many Waterbury residents considered an eyesore and a drain on village resources. Over the years, the Waterbury police fielded numerous complaints about the inn, and long suspected it of housing a local drug ring. The building was also an ongoing headache for state inspectors, who received numerous complaints from residents over the years and repeatedly cited its owners for fire-code violations.
Not surprisingly, many local residents weren't sorry to see the motel go. But some of those who were familiar with the building's place in Vermont history tried to save it from the wrecking ball -- or at least secure the property for some beneficial civic project. After the property was put on the auction block last year, the Village of Waterbury joined with Housing Vermont, a nonprofit affordable-housing organization, and scraped together $428,000 to bid on the property, with the possible goal of restoring the building and using it as a town library, municipal offices, affordable housing and/or some commercial venture. But at auction, the coalition was very quickly outbid, and the land was eventually sold to South Burlington businessman Irving Saffran for $525,000.
"Obviously, it was a disappointment to see the historical structure go, but it's no surprise given the condition it was in and the amount of time it was exposed to the elements," says Waterbury Town Selectboard member Tom Stevens, who'd tried to save the house. "But the sincere hope is that the current owners will provide downtown Waterbury with a building that honors that which was there."
Bill Hannon is the owner of Station Lumber and Building Supplies and project manager on the site's reconstruction. Hannon says his goal was to preserve much more of the original building than they did. However, after the building suffered significant water damage in the fire, as well as exposure to rain and snow -- a legal morass kept work at a standstill for more than two years.ost of the original building had to be scrapped.
Nevertheless, Hannon says that the new plans are to use sketches and historic photos to rebuild the Wells House so that it looks "almost identical" to the original house. The new building may be the possible site of a restaurant, with new office space and apartments in neighboring buildings. Another existing structure on the land will be torn down soon and replaced by new townhouses. "Basically, the structure is going to look very much like it did before," says Hannon, "only prettier."
But the property could change hands yet again. It's listed for sale at $1.5 million.