Keeping the Community in Art
"Everybody’s willing to do something. That’s how we’re going to do this."
A community’s character, its history, and identity often reside in its older buildings. If they are left to deteriorate and become eyesores, they reflect negatively on the community’s character and sense of itself. But if they can be restored and renewed, even for a wholly different purpose, they help to revitalize a town. Often, that’s one of the great benefits of a facilities loan from VCLF: it strengthens a vital local organization, while also preserving an historic community landmark.
An excellent example of the dual impact of our program is VCLF’s loan to St. Johnsbury’s Catamount Arts. Added to generous contributions from local financial and community institutions and an outpouring of citizen commitment, the loan will ensure that St. Johnsbury’s grand Masonic Temple will remain intact and alive for generations to come.
“The Masonic Temple was one of the central buildings in St. Johnsbury,” remembers longtime resident and Catamount Arts Artistic Director Jerry Aldredge. “They held proms, weddings, funerals there… all kinds of community events.”
Sadly, though, as membership in the Masonic Association began to decline, so did the remarkable building. “The Masons were no longer able to keep up the building, and began looking for another organization that could use it. We were right next door and bursting at the seams,” says Aldredge.
Catamount Arts was started in 1978 by Reg Ainsworth and Jay Craven as a rotating film series. Since launching its first performing arts showcase in 1980, Catamount Arts has presented over 1,000 world-class performing arts events. It is estimated that more than 30,000 people annually are reached by the organization’s films, concerts and educational events.
“Catamount is the only full-service arts organization in the state,” says Aldredge. “It’s the only one that does everything: films, concerts and live performances of all shapes and sizes, programs in and after school and in the community. “It takes all of that to stay in business.”
In 1985, the organization moved to the old post office building.
“Our problem was that we didn’t own the building,” Aldredge explains. “There were a lot of things we couldn’t do. To apply for a lot of arts grants, we needed to own the property we occupied.
“In the fall of 2005, the St. Johnsbury Masons offered us the building free of charge, with the stipulation that they would have lease-in-perpetuity of the third floor. We jumped at the chance and had public forums to see what people wanted to space to look like.” While the building was in excellent structural condition, there would be significant expense to rehabilitate the building and make the space useful for Catamount.
“We approached Jerry Rowe, the president of Passumpsic Savings Bank, and told him we needed at least $1 million. He didn’t yell and scream,” laughs Aldredge. “He had faith in us.”
Recognizing Catamount as an invaluable part of the community, Rowe organized a meeting of banks serving the community, with the goal of each taking on $200,000 of the debt.
“Four local banks agreed to come in,” says Aldredge, “but we needed five. Jerry Rowe called Paul Hill (VCLF Director of Housing & Community Facilities Programs) to see if the Community Loan Fund could help.”
“The rehabilitation of the old Masonic Lodge is a win-win for the St. Johnsbury community,” remarks Hill. “It’s preserving a historic gem of a building while expanding the capacity of Catamount Arts and its venue for accessible, affordable arts in the Northeast Kingdom. VCLF is proud to be one the five local lenders supporting this project.”
“We tried to be as cost- and community-conscious as we could be,” Aldredge says of the Masonic Temple's renovation. “The St. Johnsbury Academy Building Trades Program agreed to be in charge of construction, and they’ did an outstanding job. Because of this, we were only charged for materials.”
Upon moving to the Masonic Temple, the organization’s offerings were greatly expanded: two movie theaters presenting foreign-language and independent films, two classrooms for art and music education, a 125-seat performance space, a video library, an art gallery, and even a small museum of contemporary Northeast Kingdom memorabilia.
Catamount’s programs not only enrich the area’s cultural life, they also offer unique services for people seeking education and instruction in the arts. “Almost every day we get a call from someone who needs cultural lessons – dance, piano, theater” explains Aldredge. “The public school’s music programs were cut recently, and there’s a real need.”
At the heart of the effort is tremendous community support. Fundraising programs have been met with unprecedented enthusiasm and involvement. “Some people give $5," Aldredge says. “Everybody’s willing to do something. That’s how we’re going to do this."
“St. Johnsbury is at a critical time,” he adds. “It’s making economic progress and can be reinvigorated through the creative economy.”
Catamount Arts at the Masonic Temple will truly be a showcase of community arts – created for and supported by a dedicated public in one of the crown jewels of St. Johnsbury’s historical district. The Temple, which is listed in the federal historic register, will be revitalized and play an important new role in the life of this Northeast Kingdom community.