BRATTLEBORO — First came a fire, then a flood.
But despite disasters that battered Brattleboro’s downtown last year, a hopeful spirit is visible today in the streets of the bustling town just over the New Hampshire border.
And residents and business owners displaced by last April’s devastating fire who spoke to The Sentinel last week say they’ve been able to find some good among the challenges of the past year.
There are obvious signs, such as a bright yellow banner hanging from the corner of the Brooks House — the four-story building in the heart of downtown that was severely damaged in a fire April 17, 2011. It reads: “The One and Only Brattleboro — Brooks House Rising 2011-2012.”
But it can be noticed in more subtle ways, too, from the dozens of pedestrians crisscrossing the streets and sidewalks on a recent weekday afternoon, to the acoustic guitar notes coming from a street performer seated on the stoop of the gutted building.
The scene is a far cry from just over a year ago, when several streets including Main and High streets, were blocked off by fire trucks, police cars and ambulances. Back then, the thrum of traffic was replaced by the hammering and sawing of workers removing the charred bits of roof from part of the building, and the air smelled like a campfire.
The cause of the fire was later determined to be an electrical issue — years earlier during electrical work a staple had pierced wiring that eventually sparked the blaze, fire officials said.
“It’s been a difficult year,” said Jerold M. Goldberg, executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce. The agency has been involved in efforts aimed at informing tourists of why the centrally located building is empty, including the large banner.
The five-alarm fire displaced the residents of 59 apartments and the businesses located on the ground floor of the centuries-old building.
“We lost about 11 storefronts, and in probably the most attractive part of town,” Goldberg said. “Losing those businesses, with all they had to offer, was a very difficult thing for this community to deal with, but we weren’t devastated because we have so many other businesses and such a vibrant downtown.”
Relocating and rebuilding
Among the businesses in the Brooks House at the time of the fire were The Book Cellar, offices for the building’s manager and several shops such as Malisun, Brilliance and Dragonfly Dry Goods.
Some of the businesses, such as Brilliance, which sells jewelry, home decorations and Oriental rugs, relocated to other locations.
Brilliance reopened in a new storefront not far away on Elliot Street on June 4, said Hale Kiziltan. Kiziltan’s father, Michael T. Kiziltan, owns the store.
“We had the whole family working around the clock” during the move, Hale Kiziltan said Thursday, while manning the store’s cash register.
Just months after they moved to the new location, a flood caused by Tropical Storm Irene tore through the downtown area and damaged some of the basement businesses in the Elliot Street building, but Brilliance was spared, Kiziltan said.
The business is in a smaller space now because it also had use of the basement at the Brooks House, but that hasn’t been a problem, Kiziltan said.
The water and smoke from the fire damaged many of the rugs, and several of the jewelry display cases had to be replaced, but many of the items survived, Kiziltan said.
She said she’s not sure if the store would move back once the Brooks House is restored.
“Overall, I like this space better in a lot of ways,” she said, noting that it gets a lot of foot traffic because of Elliot Street’s many businesses.
Shawnna M. O’Connor, a former resident of the apartments in the Brooks House, has also relocated since the fire.
O’Connor, who lived in an apartment on the fourth floor, walked out her door the night of the fire thinking it was just another false alarm, until she hit the street and saw the chaos of evacuating residents.
Her then-7-year-old cat, Juniper, was inside the apartment and there was no way for O’Connor to get back inside.
Three days later, when residents were allowed to go into their homes for the first time, she found Juniper alive and hiding.
O’Connor took the terrified and hungry gray cat to the vet and Juniper was given a clean bill of health, she said in an interview Friday.
“She actually was happy to be at the vet’s for the first time,” O’Connor said. “At first she had some post-traumatic stress. Anytime anyone knocked she scattered and she was afraid of unknown noises.”
The two spent two weeks in a hotel and then moved into an apartment that the Vermont Housing Authority helped her find, O’Connor said.
A local human services agency helped O’Connor get a futon that she used as a bed for a while, as well as a new art desk to replace the one she lost in the fire, she said.
O’Connor, a painter, lost all her supplies. She’s since replaced them and returned to painting, focusing on cat portraits and birds.
A collection of her work titled “Feathers and Fur” has been displayed this month at Turning Point of Windham County as part of the town’s Gallery Walk.
Among the paintings is one O’Connor made of her holding Juniper called “Serenity After the Fire” — it’s based on a photo taken just minutes after she got Juniper out of the Brooks House.
Juniper has recovered from her fear, and, along with an apartment she loves, the fire has given O’Connor a new outlook.
“I got a bit spiritual,” she said. “I wasn’t really all that spiritual before, but the miracles that happened after and during the fire, I had to notice it.”
And the fire inspired art of another kind, too.
Stretching along 113 panes of ground-floor windows of the hollowed-out Brooks House is a scenic mural painted by Steven J. Donovan.
Donovan, a cook at a downtown restaurant who had previously worked in an eatery in the Brooks House, said he was approached in November with the idea of painting the windows to cover the construction. He’d painted windows for Adagio Trattoria when he worked there, and jumped at the chance for the larger project, Donovan said.
He painted one portion by Thanksgiving, and tackled the rest of the building in two more sections, finishing the whole thing in mid-February, Donovan said.
The mural depicts local scenery through the seasons.
Meanwhile, work to restore the building has been ongoing since the fire; earlier this month, future plans for it were announced.
Owner Jonathan Chase, after investing about $2 million into stabilizing the building, has sold it to a company created by two local businessmen, Bob Stevens and Craig Miskovich, who are aiming to raise about $14 million for reconstruction.
Plans (which are posted in one of the windows of the Brooks House) include studios, apartments, including two-story lofts, along with retail, office space and an outside plaza in the back, which is currently the Harmony parking lot.
Goldberg, of the local chamber of commerce, said the town looks forward to the next chapter for the historic building.
“We can say, ‘Yes, there was this fire and now here’s where we are.’
“There are plans.”