By Bonnie Adams, Managing Editor
Grafton – Since it was originally built in the early 1850s, Grafton’s Town House has literally and figuratively been a key part of the town’s common area. At times it served as municipal building, hosted numerous plays, concerts, lectures, basketball games, banquets and more, and now, home to several small businesses.
The building, located at One Grafton Common, is on both the state and national registries of historic buildings, but due to structural and outdated conditions, was not suited for the modern day. But that will soon change after completion of an extensive $4.5 million renovation which will make it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well update the utilities and fire protection. It will also start the process of creating offices, classes, practice rooms, and a performance center for the arts for its primary tenant, the nonprofit Apple Tree Arts.
Founded in 1989 by Executive Director Donna Blanchard, Apple Tree Arts is a community school for the arts serving people of all ages throughout south central Worcester County. It offers private instrumental and voice instruction, theatre arts programs, student instrumental concerts, summer programs, faculty concerts and a community concert series. It also offers programs at area schools, pre-schools and daycare centers.
Like most major municipal projects, the process of garnering support for renovating the building did not happen overnight. The first step was a straw poll of attendees at the October 2007 Town Meeting who wanted the town to keep the building rather than sell it. In fall of 2007, Apple Tree Arts expressed interest in working with the town to raise funds to renovate the building in exchange for a long-term lease of the second and third floors. In 2009 the Board of Selectmen formed the Grafton Town House Oversight Committee and in 2011 approved a 30-year long term lease for Apple Tree Arts.
The lease allows Apple Tree Arts to fundraise in order to renovate the Town House and use the second and third floor space as a performance arts center. The organization must raise $1 million in funding for the renovation and that “significant progress must be made in the preservation of the “Great Hall” by the end of the tenth year or the town may terminate the lease. In exchange, Apple Tree Arts pays $1 annually for their lease but is also responsible for paying their share of the common maintenance expenses of the building. This represents more than 50 percent of costs, which equates to about $24,000 annually. As of April 7, 2015, Apple Tree Arts has raised $885,000 toward the lease obligation.
Over the ensuing years, a combination of Community Preservation Act (CPA) and town reserves, as well as monies raised by Apple Tree Arts, have been used to replace the roof, preserve three fire escapes, and complete the first step of making the building accessible. Construction on the final part of the accessibility portion as well as updating the utilities and bringing it up to current building codes for assembly use started in May 2015.
Crews are also gutting and preparing the Great Hall which will ultimately be transformed into a new performing arts center at a later date. Prior to the current renovation, the hall was portioned off into office cubicles for a former tenant.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, the building is not without its challenges,” Andy Deschenes, who is donating his time and services as owner’s project manager, said on a recent tour of the building. “But the team is excited to work on this project. They are very respectful of the building and its old craftsmanship.”
As with any large renovation project, there have been times, Deschenes said, that tenants have felt the stress of the work being done.
“We have tried our best to keep in constant communication with them,” he said. “They have been patient and flexible – we appreciate that.
“The result is major improvements to the front of the building as well as enhanced fire protection in all areas,” he added.
The current renovation is slated to be finished in 2016. Apple Tree Arts has already started a $2 million fundraising campaign to secure grants from residents, businesses and private foundations to complete the second and third floors.
“It really has been a community-wide effort,” Blanchard said. “The Community Preservation Committee has been great to us.”
“Having a thriving performance arts center will be wonderful not only for the town but for the whole region. On a more local note, it will be a great way to increase foot traffic on the common and offer an enhancement for other businesses here,” she added.
Besides the center, the newly renovated area will have classrooms, practice rooms and a recording studio.
“We also hope to have film festivals someday, too,” she added.
Blanchard also envisions that the Great Hall will be open to the public for other uses.
“It can also be used for things like conferences, business meetings, or weddings and other community social events,” she said.
For more information on Apple Tree Arts, visit http://www.appletreearts.org.