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The Community of Calais, VT: 2024 Preservation Award

In a town of 1800 residents, one would not expect an outsized capacity to save and reuse historic places. Not so for the town of Calais, Vermont. 

A rural town in Washington County northeast of Montpelier, Calais reached its population peak in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Consequently, the town has a large number of historic structures – and five national register districts – scattered across town. Many of these places have deteriorated and even become unusable over the last fifty years. But the community noticed, and took action.

After the 1850 East Calais General Store abruptly closed in December 2019, the East Calais Community Trust formed and bought the building. Extensive restoration, deep energy retrofits and ADA upgrades brought VT’s oldest continuously operated store back to life in October 2023 as the state’s first all-electric, fossil fuel-free general store. The $2.8 million dollar project includes three affordable housing units, the store is once again serving as a hub for the community.

The 1886 Memorial Hall on Mirror Lake was the centerpiece for community life in and around North Calais for over a century prior to being condemned in 2014. The non-profit North Calais Memorial Hall Association formed to purchase and revive this gathering space. Completed in 2023, the hall is now structurally sound and features new building finishes and systems, full ADA compliancy, and a restored two-story porch. Over $860,000 was raised from funders and community members to ensure that the building, land, and swimming access would remain a community asset for future generations.

Local “friends” organizations have also been key to stewarding significant historic sites, including the state-owned Old West Church. Built in 1823, this pristine church hosts a wide variety of cultural and community gatherings. Leading up to the building’s 200 year celebration in 2023, volunteers raised significant funds for interior and exterior preservation work, including restoring the iconic steeple. With no modern systems for lighting or heat, the Old West Church continues to connect families and communities, local and distant, to the past, present, and future in this crossroads village.

The 1803 Robinson Sawmill in Kents Corner is the state’s oldest operating mill and provided much of the lumber to construct buildings throughout the area. A determined group of milling technology enthusiasts formed the Robinson Sawmill nonprofit, and secured funds and volunteers to rebuild the stone foundation, replace failing structural beams, and revive milling operations, creating a place where people can gather to trade information and build relationships.

The 1866 Calais Town Hall suffered years of deferred maintenance, leaving it unable to be used for the benefit of the community. A group of committed citizens and the Town of Calais embraced a hyper-local approach to turn the building into a year-round, safe and comfortable space for municipal meetings and community activities. Local planning, local knowledge, local expertise, and local skills saw the project through to realization. A new foundation was poured, the building raised out of the floodway, and the exterior painstakingly restored. Through the sheer will and desire of the community, the Town Hall is once again the center of civic life in town. 

None of these projects would have succeeded without the extraordinary efforts of the citizens of Calais. They’ve done an outsized job of cultivating a sense of place and strengthening the community vitality of its villages and rural areas. They’ve kept gathering places alive, revived shuttered businesses, restored infrastructure essential to the community’s heritage, and helped address the need for affordable housing. The individuals and teams on these projects have brought hard work, persistence, thoughtfulness and deep commitment to this work, proving that even small communities can do great things.

Preservation Award to:

Town of Calais

Friends of the Calais Town Hall 

East Calais Community Trust

North Calais Memorial Hall Association

Old West Church Association 

Robinson Sawmill

R. Edwards & Co.

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