Warner works to preserve Odd Fellows building
Odd Fellows building in Warner.
(Ken Williams / Monitor file)
Odd Fellows building in Warner.
(Concord Monitor photo/Ken Williams)
On the hill behind Warner’s town hall stands the Odd Fellows building, which since 1892 has served many purposes including as a newspaper office, a bakery, a circuit board manufacturing firm, a meeting hall for the Masons and classrooms for the high school.
But now the three-story building sits vacant, used only occasionally by the fire department for drills. The department’s dummies, made out of rope, are strewn across the second-floor landing. The building’s 10-foot ceilings are speckled with holes, the tall windows are cracked or boarded up, the floor is littered with plaster and debris, and some doors are marked off with caution tape.
Most people would see a building in disrepair. Jim McLaughlin sees possibility. And he hopes a developer will, too.
“When it was built . . . it was really beautiful. It has been neglected for a long, long time,” said McLaughlin, who leads the town’s Odd Fellows Building Committee. “People think it’s ugly, and say let’s get rid of it. I don’t want to see that happen. I think it can be restored and be a real asset for the community.”
The town has owned the Church Street building since 2000, and ever since has been trying to find a private developer to orchestrate its restoration.
McLaughlin is optimistic, and the town seems to be on board. At town meeting this year, residents voted to create the Odd Fellows Building Capital Reserve Fund for hazard mitigation, and to start it off with $5,000. This week, McLaughlin said, he is meeting with a potential developer who is interested in rehabilitating the building in its current spot.
But progress doesn’t come without obstacles. The money appropriated by the town will go toward cleaning up the basement where the hazardous materials PCBs and lead were found during an environmental assessment financed by a grant.
“That would be priority one,” McLaughlin said. The building also contains asbestos.
“The rest of it may be things the town would be wasting money to clean up,” he said. “It hinges on coming to terms with a developer.”
It is unclear what a complete cleanup would cost, but Town Administrator Jim Bingham said the town is fortunate because most of the contamination is localized and not highly concentrated, and no contamination was found in the groundwater surrounding the building.
“It’s a pretty light situation,” he said. “Nonetheless, it still can cost money to really clean it up.”
Getting a commitment from a developer would mean the town could nail down how the cleanup will proceed and who is responsible. Over the past decade, there have been several interested parties, but none has panned out. One fell through after two or three years of negotiations, when the developer decided the cost to renovate the building was too high for the return, McLaughlin said.
More recently, another man wanted to move the building to his property. That eventually proved too expensive and he dropped out.
“It’s been a very difficult process,” Bingham said. “Partly because of the location and lack of parking available.”
The building takes up most of the lot, leaving little space for parking. “There is some discussion of using some town land to develop parking spaces or working with abutting owners to see if we can come up with something,” he said.
McLaughlin said the town is hoping to enter into a yearlong agreement with the interested developer to give him time to assess the cost and value of investment. At year’s end, if the developer decides to proceed, the town would turn over the building.
“If that doesn’t happen, we’re going to continue looking for someone who has the vision and the pockets,” said McLaughlin, who thinks developing the building into residential units could be a good use for the town.
McLaughlin sees potential in the woodworking details carved into the staircase, and the huge third-floor windows that give way to unobstructed views of the Mink Hills. “It’s a great building,” he said, “an amazing place.”
(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)