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Burlington Moves Forward on Reenvisioning Memorial Auditorium

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Memorial Auditorium's second-floor lobby - AMY LILLY
  • Amy Lilly
  • Memorial Auditorium's second-floor lobby

On September 25, Seven Days joined a hard-hat tour of Burlington's Memorial Auditorium. One of the largest public meeting spaces in the state at 56,000 square feet, it was built in 1927 as a balconied auditorium seating 2,500.

After years of deferred maintenance that led to the building's closure in December 2016, the city is now deep in rehabilitation plans. The tour was one of a series of public-outreach events organized by Burlington's Community & Economic Development Office. These have included a survey, which found that 84 percent of nearly 2,600 respondents support rehabilitation; and a workshop that reviewed survey results and introduced rehab options. A second workshop, scheduled for Thursday, October 11, in Burlington City Hall Auditorium, will present three possible plans for adaptive reuse.

The tour remained inside, passing over the most obvious argument for rehab: the exterior. Memorial was designed by Frank Lyman Austin, who also designed the Burlington Central Fire Station (1926), the Armory Building (1929) and the YMCA building (1934). Austin's aesthetic was practical but not without flair. The moderately elaborate roofline includes a stepped parapet that arches over inlaid cast-stone panels adorning the building's corners. The brickwork adds depth to the façade with raised pilasters between windows. The original adornments, now lost, included flat canopies suspended over the entrances and lampposts with globe lights.

The interior is significantly more "utilitarian," as tour leaders Martha Keenan, CEDO's capital improvements program manager; and economic development specialist Will Clavelle described it. Overhead, the auditorium has a steel-truss and wood-beam roof system supported by steel pylons encased in the masonry. The exposed brick walls are lined with steam radiator panels that reach almost to the ceiling on the lower level. Powering them is a pair of huge 1958 boilers in a sub-basement room.

The takeaway from the tour was that the building needs a daunting amount of rehabilitation and updating — and that it would be worthwhile, provided the cost is manageable. CEDO director Neale Lunderville estimates that modernization will require $15 million to $25 million.

Structural repairs will have to begin with the steel framework. In 2008, two steel beams were unbricked, found to be rusted through and replaced for $100,000. The state of nearly two dozen other beams, hidden behind brick, is unknown.

The steel pylons may be similarly compromised. "We know we have rust on the pylons down to the auditorium level, but we don't know below that," said Keenan. "The biggest challenge is that we don't know how extensive the damage is until we open it up."

The building will also need a new heating and cooling system. Just six vents in the auditorium ceiling currently handle the task of air conditioning in the summer. The boilers needed a $10,000 infusion to get them started for the season, said Keenan; the building must be heated all winter to prevent the emergency sprinkler system from freezing. Meanwhile, the radiators lose heat to the brick and the outdoors.

Many of the bricks are riddled with cracks and moisture damage, and a 2016 roof replacement didn't solve the problem. The porous bricks need regular sealing, which was long neglected.

Also necessary are a total plumbing replacement; outdoor and indoor stair replacement (the metal-pan stairs filled with cement are rusting and crumbling); asbestos ceiling-panel removal; window replacements; an ADA-accessible elevator; and, perhaps, insulation.

Still, the possibilities for reuse excite Keenan. Gesturing toward the 15,000-square-foot lower-level space, now subdivided and partitioned with non-load-bearing walls, she said she envisions reopening the entire span between the large windows that run the length of north and south walls. "It would have really nice natural light," she noted.

In the entrance lobby, bronze plaques memorializing local veterans up to the Korean War give the building its name. Keenan envisions the ticket lobby directly above — a sweeping space with east-facing windows — as a place to hang new plaques honoring vets from the Vietnam War and more recent conflicts. She also sees it as "a great place for a bar."

In the auditorium, Keenan and Clavelle recalled events it has hosted: police and firefighters' balls, statewide music festivals, Champlain and Saint Michael's colleges' home basketball games. After those schools built their own courts, the need for Memorial's dried up, and a reuse plan would likely not retain it, Clavelle said.

Keenan suggested that a rehabilitated Memorial could recapture some of the convention and conference business that Burlington has ceded to South Burlington. Survey respondents overwhelmingly voted for other uses: Nearly 80 percent chose shows and entertainment, and 74 percent civic and community meeting spaces, with only 47 and 46 percent choosing conference and trade-show space, respectively. But such uses are "not mutually exclusive," Lunderville said, and a mix would help with financial viability.

Keenan and Clavelle told the tour group about one model for a financially successful rehabilitation on a similar scale: Lowell Memorial Auditorium in Massachusetts, which was completed in 1922 and seats 2,800. It receives approximately $150,000 in public money annually; the private corporation that runs it, Mill City Management, covers the remaining expenses through ticketed events and space rental.

In a Preservation Burlington newsletter last spring, Preservation Trust of Vermont field-service representative and board member Jenna Lapachinski offered other comparisons: the Concord City Auditorium in New Hampshire (1904), the Dalles Civic Auditorium in Oregon (1921) and Washington Hall in Seattle (1908), all successfully revived through citizen-led efforts.

Devin Colman, Vermont state architectural historian at the Division for Historic Preservation, observed that Memorial has a lot in its favor. Speaking as a Burlington resident — the division has no role in the project — he said, "The nice thing about a building like this is that it's so adaptable. It's really flexible and functional for any number of uses." That makes it modern, Colman added: "The going trend is 'Don't box yourself in.'"

He lauded the city's public-input process, saying, "They're putting forth a good-faith effort to really figure this out, and that's great to see."

For Colman, the effort to save Memorial is worthwhile. The building is "infused with memory," he said. "Think about all the things that happened there. That's what's really important to save: that intangible connection.

"But it's also about the future," Colman added. "A lot of good potential can come out of this."

Burlington Memorial Auditorium Public Workshop No. 2, Thursday, October 11, 5:30-7 p.m., at Burlington City Hall Auditorium. Free. burlingtonvt.gov/cedo

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