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WTF: What’s Happening to Founders Hall at Saint Michael’s College?

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Founders Hall, Saint Michael's College, 1907 - COURTESY OF SAINT MICHAEL'S COLLEGE
  • Courtesy Of Saint Michael's College
  • Founders Hall, Saint Michael's College, 1907

April marks the official start of crane season — not the spindly legged water birds but the long-necked construction equipment. Drivers passing Saint Michael's College in Colchester may have noticed the flock that recently took up residence inside a chain-link fence that now surrounds Founders Hall, the brick behemoth at the corner of Route 15 and Lime Kiln Road. What's going down on SMC's campus?

Short answer: the college's oldest building. After nearly a decade of discussion and more than a year of permitting delays, St. Mike's has finally begun the monthslong process of tearing down its original home.

The four-story building dates back to the mid-19th century — the 1903 plaque hanging on its façade notwithstanding — and wasn't always bedecked in brick. According to a 2009 report by Walter Richard Wheeler, an architectural historian with Hartgen Archeological Associates of Putney, Founders Hall actually began its life as an 1860s-era farmhouse.

After the property's purchase in 1902, the building initially served as a novitiate for the Society of Saint Edmund, which founded St. Mike's, the state's oldest Catholic college. The first boarders arrived there in 1904, and the red brick veneer was added in the summer of 1907. The building's iconic cupola and cross, which feature in the SMC logo, went up in 1914.

The Edmundites have a long history of progressive values — poverty relief, civil rights advocacy, promotion of social justice, and the embrace of religious, ethnic and sexual diversity on campus. So why don't the equally progressive values of reuse and recycling apply to the school's most historic edifice?

To be fair, they have for decades. Old Hall, as it was originally known, has been used for just about every campus purpose imaginable: dormitory, chapel, library, classrooms, administrative offices, recreation hall, dining room, laundry and gymnasium. The historical records make no mention of a bowling alley, wine cellar or Pachinko parlor. But if they ever existed at the college, it's a safe bet they would have been in Founders Hall.

Over the years, St. Mike's has undertaken a number of projects meant to keep the historic building up to code, preserve its structural integrity and extend its useful life. But Founders Hall has been foundering for years — discussions about its demolition date back to at least 2013. In 2011, when the college posted a trivia question on Facebook that asked for the building's alternative name, one student replied, "The Coldest Building on Campus in the Winter Hall."

According to a college spokesperson, the cost of saving the building and bringing it up to code has been estimated at $12 million to $15 million. But after extensive review by architects, engineers and historical preservationists, the college determined that the building was unsalvageable. In 2019, the board of trustees voted to authorize its demolition.

Founders Hall, 2021 - KEN PICARD ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Ken Picard ©️ Seven Days
  • Founders Hall, 2021

Not everyone in the college community was thrilled with that decision. In August 2019, after the school requested permission under Act 250, Vermont's land use and development law, to tear it down, 1977 alum Sara Dillon sought party status in the case and requested a public hearing. Dillon is a Massachusetts resident with a second home in Greensboro, Vt. Her father, also a St. Mike's graduate, served for years as a professor there.

"Once you knock down that building and it's gone, I think you've really lost the soul of the college," Dillon told the campus newspaper, the Defender, in December 2019.

When a district commission denied Dillon's petition, she appealed the ruling to the Vermont Supreme Court in a case titled In re: Founder's Hall. (Evidently, Vermont's highest court has a liberal philosophy on its use of apostrophes.) In an October 7, 2020, online hearing, Dillon argued that since Act 250 gives neighboring property owners the right to weigh in on the fate of Founders Hall, her family's connections to the college should allow her to weigh in, too.

"The building is not being demolished to make way for anything. The college has no intention of building something of importance," Dillon told the justices. "It's simply arguing that it's too expensive to keep the building."

But St. Mike's attorney Matthew Byrne countered that there are people all around the country who are interested in historical preservation, but Act 250 doesn't give them a proverbial seat at the table, either. If that were Vermont's legal standard, he argued, "Everyone could sue St. Michael's, and no building would ever come down."

Ultimately, the justices sided with the college and Dillon's appeal was denied.

"While we are very sad to see our beloved Founders Hall come down, saving it would not have been fiscally responsible, and we must invest our resources in providing the best experience for our students, faculty and staff," SMC president Lorraine Sterritt said in a written statement last week. "We will save the iconic cupola and other elements of the building to appropriately memorialize [them]."

The cupola is tentatively scheduled to be decoupled during the week of May 17; the rest of Founders Hall will be removed by September. Aside from creating additional green space and extra walkways, the college has no plans yet for what will replace it.

The original print version of this article was headlined "What's Happening to Founders Hall at Saint Michael's College?"

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