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Brown Company buildings will be new Visitors Center

The brick rectangular buildings that once served as a cutting edge research and development facility for the Brown Company are getting some rehabilitation and plans are underway to turn them into a visitors center, offices, a gift shop and museum. Matilda Brown. (click for larger version)
December 01, 2010
BERLIN — The old Brown Company Research and Development buildings are to be turned into a visitors/welcome center. The historic structures will also house the Chamber of Commerce, the gift shop for the Northern Forest Heritage Park, and artifacts collected throughout the years related to the history of Berlin. First though, the buildings need some renovating.

Jim Wagner, who is heading up the project to renovate the buildings, said that the Northern Forest Heritage Park has already received two EPA clean-up grants awarded to Brownsfield sites, so that the site can be cleaned up before proceeding. The grants are given to help clean up sites that are defined by the EPA as Brownsfield sites, meaning that "real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant."

Brownsfield sites can lower property values and challenge local economies where the sites are found. The Brownsfield Coaltion Assessment Program of New Hampshire helps to identify these sites and then helps get EPA clean-up grants for them. The city of Berlin was awarded one of these grants in August of 2009. The grant is good for three years and provides $1 million in funding. The grant program itself focuses mainly on Coös, Carroll, and Grafton counties because they tend to have the most need for the grants. It was not known at the time what the amount of the other grant was.

Another Brownsfield site that received a clean-up grant was the former Fraser Paper Company administration offices and those were turned into a new space for the Berlin District court and state offices.

The Brown Company R&D buildings were also on the 2010 list of New Hampshire's Seven to Save, something created by the Preservation Alliance to "help draw attention and resources to irreplaceable New Hampshire landmarks." The Church of the Holy Resurrection in Berlin was on the list in 2008.

The buildings themselves were once a hub of innovation. According to Mr. Wagner, "a lot of pulp and paper testing was done here…the precursor to Crisco came out of there." He said that the project to renovate the buildings has been 10 years in the making.

The work for both buildings is projected to be $6 million. The two clean-up grants that were received have helped the work to progress. "By this point, we're about 50 percent done. We got $200,000 from the state for cleanup, $200,000 from the federal government, and about $750-800,000 in various other funding as well, all for the cleanup," Mr. Wagner said. "We already did the construction of phase 1…two roofs and the construction was about $250,000." Mr. Wagner noted that phase I had been underway from July to September.

Grant funding is also being used to repair the windows in the buildings. "The West Side windows were really broken and we got funding to protect the windows, so we can restore them and keep them from deteriorating," Mr. Wagner said. "The original five historic windows are going in now. These are all the original 1915 windows…we chemically peeled the paint down to the 1915 wood." He added that the wiring in the building is the original 1917 wiring. The second floor of the building was added in 1917, on top of the roof.

Another player in the renovation of these buildings is Plymouth State University. "Plymouth State University takes care of a lot of our pictures. Plymouth State is doing 24 mural paintings to be put up in the spring, 12 on the first floor and 12 on the second floor," Mr. Wagner said. The murals will depict concepts of the park and the area.

The second building, on the river, was chosen to host the visitor's center because the rooms are larger. The rooms in the first building, the one by the road, cannot be made bigger because the building is a historical site and so the integrity (and the original dimensions) must be preserved.

At the moment, Mr. Wagner said the project is "kind of out of money" but is optimistic that the project will be completed within the next five years. "We've cleaned up the reception area," he said. He hopes that the area will become "the hub" for the Northern Forest Heritage Park. He also added that the river walk has been cleaned up, which is a nice three mile walking loop. Mr. Wagner said that in terms of the number of visitors, this year has been the best year for the Northern Forest Heritage Park.

Martin Lord Osman
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