Historical Society readies next big project

By LISA CAPOBIANCO
STAFF WRITER
With its roof replacement project near completion, the Bristol Historical Society is ready to move forward with its plan to renovate the second floor of its building.
Tom Dickau, president of the Bristol Historical Society, said the building should now be secure from the outside, even though there is minor brick work left to be completed.
He said the time has come to start the Society’s next project.
The first step involves consulting with the city’s fire marshal to determine the most up-to-date zoning and fire regulations, said Dickau, adding the building will need a second egress from the second floor as well as an elevator to become Americans With Disabilities Act compliant. Dickau said the elevator should run from the basement to the attic, which provides tremendous storage space.
“You’ve got to believe you’ll do it, or you never will do it,” said Dickau, adding the thought of having a working roof on the building almost felt impossible several years ago.
Members of the society’s Board of Directors must decide how they want to use the second floor. The Building Committee will have to get bids and hire an architect who has experience working with historic buildings.
Dickau said once renovated, the second floor could serve as an adequate space for multiple purposes, and will more than double the amount of space offered in the building currently.
“By doing that, we could offer the Witch’s Dungeon a permanent location, we could enlarge the Memorial Military Museum, the Sports Hall of Fame…and we could exhibit our collection in a meaningful way because a lot of our collection presently is in storage because we don’t have adequate space to display it all,” said Dickau, adding that it also is possible to allow other community organizations to rent space on the second floor. “We have to think outside the box and say, ‘what is the best way of using the second floor to provide everybody what they need and also to make sure it’s fiscally sound to do it?’”
Built in 1890, the home of Bristol Historical Society on Summer Street was the former Bristol High School. In 1908, the addition of the building was put on, and in 1922, the city opened a new high school in the Memorial Boulevard building. Bristol then needed more space for the high school grades, and moved the freshman class to the Summer Street building from the 1929 to 1959.
Calling the building a “cultural hub,” Dickau said the building has an emotional impact on thousands of people who attended high school as a freshman. He said the building “belongs to the community,” as countless individuals have walked through it just to bring back memories.
“It was the first city high school,” said Dickau. “There are a lot of people who have a strong investment in this building. It’s an icon to the city of Bristol. It deserves every dollar that needs to…maintain this icon.”
The second floor of the building includes a staircase that was blocked off because of the collision of people exiting the building in a panic, said Gerry Thompson of the Bristol Historical Society’s Building Committee.
“They had to shut off one staircase because people coming down were (colliding) with people coming out from the first floor,” said Thompson. “We only have one staircase at the back of the building right now, and the second floor is not meant to be occupied by people—we have some storage in a few rooms up there.”
Thompson said the first priority of the second floor renovations is to install an elevator as well as a second staircase so that part of the building can become more ADA compliant. Currently, the second floor has neither heat nor electricity.
Thompson said when the second building was added on, a stage was closed off in one of the bigger rooms upstairs.
“We would like to open that back up, and we could have small plays here…musical concerts with the band on the stage, we could show movies here,” said Thompson. “The sky is the limit.”
From 1959 until 2002, several organizations were located in the Summer Street building, which included a circuit court, the senior center, and the Bristol Community Organization, said Dickau. During that time, he said the second floor was “pillaged,” as all of the blackboards were removed, said Dickau.
To date, the Bristol Historical Society to date houses a number of organizations, including the Memorial Military Museum, the Bristol Sports Hall of Fame and Witch’s Dungeon Museum, as well as Covenant of Grace Church. The society also sponsors Boy Scout Troup 9.
“This is the oldest, building in the city…for public use that still exists,” said Dickau.
Dickau said as soon as the second floor is used, the society’s annual budget will escalate, as that portion of the building currently does not have heat, and would need extended water lines in order to install bathrooms. The project will need capital fundraising, such as in-kind donations and grants.
“There’s all kinds of situations we have to look at,” said Dickau. “Now is the time to begin looking at it.” 
Thompson, who began his involvement in 2005, said the first project began with a new security system. Before his arrival, the fire alarm and sprinkler were brought up to code. From there, Thompson advised the board to improve the electrical service, and the ramp outside the building became accessible for people with disabilities. In 2008, the society received a $100,000 state grant for a new boiler system. The porch on the west side of the building also was revitalized.
The most recent project was the replacement of the roof, which cost $317,000.
“If you total up all of those items, we have put about $1.5 million into this building,” said Thompson, adding it will cost between $1 million to $1.5 million to finish the building.
Although there is no exact timeline for the project to be completed, Dickau said it will be done in phases, and he hopes to see the planning stages roll out after the holidays.
After meeting with the fire marshal, the society hopes to meet with a group of individuals who can offer assistance with fund raising.
Dickau said the work of all past and present volunteers have made the Bristol Historical Society “a community-oriented organization with sound structural, first floor accommodations.”
“Some people have already passed away who put blood, sweat, and tears into this building,” said Dickau, adding he is open to hearing ideas about the second floor with anyone from the community. “[They] have a right to see this building come to its maximum use as quickly as possible.”
The Historical Society’s Building Committee will play a crucial role in determining the exact uses of the second floor. A plan of action will be put in place to determine where the Society wants to go with the project, such as design elements before consulting with an architect.
“The basic structures are still up there,” said Dickau. “All the utilities [and lighting] have to be designed.”

Gerry Thompson sorts through storage items in one of the old classrooms on the second floor of the Bristol Historical Society. The Society plans to renovate the second floor of its building on Summer Street.

Gerry Thompson sorts through storage items in one of the old classrooms on the second floor of the Bristol Historical Society. The Society plans to renovate the second floor of its building on Summer Street.