Can the home of Vermont's foremost Civil War hero be saved?
A steady, freezing rain falls through the charred rafters of an old brick house on South Main Street in downtown Waterbury. What was once an elegant front door now hangs ajar, revealing the extensive internal damage caused by an electrical fire more than a year ago. Inside, water trickles down an oak banister and pools in the front foyer. A few months ago, the Vermont Department of Labor and Industry ordered a chain-link fence put up around the property to protect the public from bricks that occasionally tumble from the second floor in a strong wind. But there's no sign that the building's owners are trying to save this antebellum home from the weather or the wrecking ball.
In fact, only an engraved granite plaque hints at the building's historical value. The house, which was built in 1850 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was the 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 eventually rose to the rank of general. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his exploits on the battlefield at Gettysburg, where a statue of him now stands. A similar statue in Burlington's Battery Park commemorates Wells' military career, as does a plaque in the Vermont Statehouse.
But a hand-painted sign outside Wells' childhood home advertises the building's more recent, less auspicious history -- as a seedy inn for transients and low-income residents. From 1989 until December 2002, the building was known as the Gateway Motel, an establishment some Waterbury officials describe as "an eyesore" and a drain on municipal resources. Its owners, Dr. Subbarao Gutti and Sathyavathi Gutti of Centerport, New York, still owe thousands of dollars in back taxes and assessments.
Waterbury police say that over the years they received "a wide variety of complaints" about the place and suspect it was once the center of a local drug ring. State inspectors note that they, too, fielded numerous complaints from motel residents over the years and cited its owners repeatedly for fire-code violations.
Not surprisingly, some local residents weren't sorry to see the motel go. But those who know of the building's historical significance fear that its recent reputation will thwart efforts to save it. More-over, they worry that even if this historic landmark doesn't succumb to the elements, it may fall into the hands of another out-of-state developer who is more interested in its value as prime downtown real estate. And that, says Village President Thomas Stevens, would be a loss not only to Waterbury, but to all Vermonters.
"We don't often have opportunities to redevelop a property downtown, especially historic properties," says Stevens. "We don't have much left here in Waterbury. To give it up without trying would do a disservice to who we were, and who we are, as a community."
Stevens also serves as vice president of Revitalizing Waterbury, a nonprofit historical preservation society. In recent months he has been on a one-man campaign to resurrect the William Wells House and put it to use as affordable housing, municipal offices, a new town library or some other commercial venture. A recent structural engineering report concluded that the building can still be saved. But to survive the winter it will need a new roof and considerable renovations costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. And neither the village nor the town of Waterbury has the necessary funds -- or the legal authority to condemn the building.
As a result, Stevens has solicited the help of other nonprofit groups known for restoring old buildings and managing them as housing. Several years ago, Revitalizing Waterbury partnered with the Central Vermont Community Land Trust and Housing Vermont to save Waterbury Center's historic Seminary Building in Waterbury Center, which was then converted to much-needed housing. Though both groups have expressed similar interest in the Wells House, resurrecting this building may be an even bigger challenge, not only because of the cost but also because it is mired in a huge legal morass.
According to federal court documents, the Guttis, who bought the property in 1989, still owe more than $463,000 to the Small Business Administration. In November, the U.S. Attorney's Office foreclosed on the property and ordered the building put up for public sale if the mortgage is not paid off by early January. Additionally, the Guttis still owe more than $9300 in unpaid property taxes for 2003.
In fact, other state and local officials say that their biggest challenge to saving this piece of Vermont history has been their ongoing difficulty in dealing with Dr. Gutti himself. Michael Desrochers is a fire-prevention regional manager with the Department of Labor and Industry. He says that in the past 12 years his office sent inspectors to the Gateway Motel repeatedly and issued several fines for fire-code violations, including one for a faulty fire-alarm system. But even after the building burned in 2002, Desrochers says his office had to be "pretty persistent with the owner" to secure the site and safeguard public safety.
Likewise, Waterbury Municipal Manager Bill Shepeluk notes that Gutti has long been a drain on the municipality. "For as long as the current owner has had the property, he has always had difficulty paying his bills. Tax bills have routinely been in arrears, as have water and sewer bills," Shepeluk says. "The property is in a very prominent area of our community and everyone would agree that we want it redeveloped and made into something that is attractive, functional and fits in with the village environment."
Other officials aren't just annoyed at the Guttis for letting one of Waterbury's few remaining landmarks languish. Stevens is also angry at the Small Business Administration, which holds the mortgage on the property, for apparently allowing the owners' fire insurance to lapse. Such a policy would have paid for a new roof months ago. "I want to know that the SBA knows how historic this building is," Stevens says. "We're not trying to save a fleabag motel. We're trying to save a historic structure. And if you lose a part of history, you lose a part of yourself."
Neither the SBA nor the U.S. attorney's office will comment on this case, as it's now in litigation. But in a letter to the village president several months ago, SBA District Director Kenneth Silvia explained, "It is not surprising that a seasonal business reliant on tourism could have been negatively impacted by the economic ups and downs of Waterbury and the State of Vermont over the last 14 years." Silvia pointed out some of the many projects in which the SBA has invested over the years in Waterbury, including Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, the Stagecoach Inn, Snowfire and Arvad's, to name a few.
Stevens doesn't dispute the SBA's other success stories in Waterbury; he simply says that the Gateway Motel wasn't one of them. And he takes issue with the characterization of the Gateway Motel as a "seasonal business reliant on tourism."
"When he says that Dr. and Mrs. Gutti have operated the motel since 1989,' it sounds like a nice little couple from New Jersey bought a bed-and-breakfast because they came up to Ver-mont and liked it here," says Stevens. "That place didn't cater to tourists. It was a fleabag motel. To me, this is spin, that's all."
Reached last week during a visit to Vermont, Dr. Gutti would not comment on the motel's sketchy past or his current plans for the property, except to say that he has found a bank and some local investors who are interested in fixing it up "as soon as possible." When asked about the house's historic significance, Gutti said he didn't know anything about it.
But Stevens is skeptical of Gutti's 11th-hour claims about saving this old house. "He's just not cooperative. He's been in our community for 15 years, but he hasn't been a part of our town," Stevens says. "We do not believe he has the means to do so, and even if he did, his history shows his follow-through will not be as lofty as his words."
In the meantime, Stevens can only watch as the snow, and the bricks, continue to fall.