Backers of the $24 million restoration of Brattleboro’s Brooks House say the downtown building will be ready for its first tenants soon. The historic structure was gutted by fire in 2011. In early August Vermont Technical College and Community College of Vermont will open classrooms and offices in the building.
In the late 1800s Brooks House was known as one of the grandest luxury hotels in New England. Legend has it that Rudyard Kipling played poker in one of its penthouse towers. The sprawling, but dilapidated building housed 60 residential tenants and a dozen Main Street shops when it was heavily damaged by fire in April, 2011.
Now it’s almost ready to make a comeback.
Bob Stevens leads the way through a maze of construction to a two-story atrium, one of several public spaces in the building’s newly designed interior.
"This was the entrance to the old hotel," he says. He points out a pair of cast-iron columns that have been restored, along with many other reminders of the hotel’s Victorian hey-day.
Stevens, who heads a Brattleboro engineering and design firm, is one of five local business leaders behind the Brooks House project. The group put together financing from a host of state, local and federal sources. The investors weren’t looking for quick returns. The $24 million renovation cost three times what the building is expected to be worth when the project is complete. Stevens says the town’s rental rates aren’t high enough to justify that kind of expense. But Stevens says it had to be done. Brattleboro's future was hanging in the balance.
"Our intent, really, is to make the economy a little more robust when we’re done so that we can help out all the business owners in town,” Stevens explains. "We’re hoping to drive more traffic down here, and over time get to a place where the rents are higher because businesses are more successful."
The two state college branches that will take up residence in the first week of August will occupy parts of the building’s second and third floors. Stevens says the colleges are important to the building and to Brattleboro’s downtown. The schools are expected to bring about 400 people into the business district each day.
"They can drive their car in once and then walk to lunch and walk to a little bit of shopping," Stevens says.
The developers have already leased space to a 120-seat restaurant, a yogurt shop, a jewelry store and some other businesses. Many of the apartments have also been spoken for. The residential units are on the building’s upper floors. Stevens says most are high end rentals. He says Brattleboro has enough affordable housing.
"We think, based on the response, that we’ve hit a product type," he says. "People that have some means, who want to be downtown, want to be part of where that action is." The penthouse that includes the tower where Rudyard Kipling supposedly gambled has already been leased.
Stevens says only the colleges and the public spaces will be ready for occupancy by August first. The rest of the building will open in September.