SHOREHAM-Members of a town committee recently formed a non-profit organization to preserve and renovate Newton Academy, Vermont's oldest remaining secondary school building. The move will allow this 11-year-old town committee to pursue larger grants and new funding sources in anticipation of the building's 200th anniversary next year.
The Newton Academy Restoration Committee has beefed up their efforts in recent months due to a town survey showing 72 percent of Shoreham voters want restoration completed in time for the bicentennial. That was one finding of an exit poll conducted by Selectboard Vice chairman Bob Warren during November's election. The same survey also showed 72 percent of residents think the town offices should be incorporated into Newton Academy.
The latter has been the topic of a long debate among town leaders.The selectboard acknowledged that the town clerk's office outgrew its current facilities and has researched options for relocation to a new building or expansion of the current office. Newton Academy Restoration Committee members and their supporters have pushed for relocation to the former school. This largely silent debate has continued for more than a decade.
This is frustrating to committee member Nick Causton.
"The majority of townspeople realize the town has to pay for Newton Academy, empty or fully occupied," he said. He points to Warren's survey results reporting more than two-thirds disapprove of building a new town clerk's office or adding on to the current one, preferring Newton Academy instead. "What is the selectboard waiting for now?"
While continuing to struggle with what they see as inaction on the selectboard's part, committee members are motivated to preserve and restore the building for public use.
"It is not just an old building that needs repairs," said member Susan Peden. "This building embodies many of the values upon which our community was built and still relies. The founders of Newton Academy had a strong vision for the future knowing that younger generations needed a better education. The symbol of that vision is the structure which, solidly built, has withstood nearly 200 Vermont winters and educated hundreds of local students."
Many of these students are still around and are active in the building's rehabilitation. The last class to graduate from the building was in 1969. It was abandoned in 1973, closing the doors on its long history as the central focus point of Shoreham life.
Since Newton Academy was built in 1810 it has hosted town meetings, dances, dramatic and musical productions, the public library and several schools. It was originally chartered as a private school until the town took it over in 1877 to serve grades one through eight. In 1910 a two-year Shoreham High School was started there - later expanding to four years. In the 1950s a new elementary school was built next door, but the Newton Academy building continued to house Shoreham High School until closing its doors in 1969. After briefly housing an overflow from the grade school it was abandoned in 1973.
In the late 1970s part of the downstairs was renovated to provide local medical care for the community. Shorewell Clinic still operates under the auspices of Dr. Allan Curtiss and now a community meeting room has also been renovated for use by the Shoreham Preschool, senior citizens, and other groups in town.
The Newton Academy Restoration Committee was formed in 1997 as a town authorized body to carry out the rehabilitation. They continued renovation work downstairs and stabilized the cupola on top of the building. Recently they raised $112,000 in grants and another $38,000 from private donations and town appropriations to replace the roof and repair the roof structure. The group is currently raising funds to proceed with an $80,000 repair of the foundation and then hopes to renovate the second floor classrooms and auditorium.
However some granting establishments won't give money to municipal committees and require separate non-profit status. Therefore the group recently decided to form the Newton Academy Restoration Corporation. The State of Vermont granted non-profit status to them and paperwork has been filed with the IRS to obtain 501(c)(3) tax-exemption.
The group will continue to work with the town while maintaining this new legal entity for fundraising. Committee members hope the Selectboard will pursue Newton Academy as the new Town Clerk's location - there are thousands of dollars earmarked for Shoreham's town offices that could go into the building - but they are moving forward with renovations nonetheless.