Caretakers of centuries-old Lasell Hall are planning a restoration project they hope will bring back some of the historic flare lost in a hack-and-slash recovery effort last year after Tropical Storm Irene.
Also known as the DAR House after the Schoharie chapter of the Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution — the organization that owns it — Lasell Hall was inundated with more than 5 feet of floodwater last August.
The building and land that goes with it — part of which is used by Schoharie County for parking — is maintained by the county under an agreement with the local DAR, a tiny organization of about 30 people that trace its roots back to the patriots who fought for American independence.
The DAR had little funding and accepted an offer from Schoharie County officials to send crews to perform some post-flooding emergency repair. And while the county work may have saved the building from mold, oil contamination and possible demolition, the historic plaster walls, ornate moldings, fireplace mantles and cabinets all fell victim to gutting, which was required to dry out the facility.
“They just sawed it off,” said Anne Hendrix, a member of the local DAR and historian for the town of Schoharie.
Built by Johannes Lawyer in 1795, Lasell Hall was opened as Fountain Town Tavern when Schoharie was called Brunnendorf, according to the DAR. It was built of native pine and reinforced with bricks dried in the sun and known as noggin — elements made more visible by the post-flood gutting.
The building — which has served more recently as a community gathering place that hosted weddings, group meetings and even visits from Santa Claus — was turned into a boarding house for students at Schoharie Academy in 1855 after being purchased by the family of Chester Lasell, who came to Schoharie in 1806.
The building’s second floor also served as the Schoharie Free Library from 1916 until the library outgrew it.
For a year after Irene, Lasell Hall served as home to the Loaves and Fishes Cafe, a kitchen run by volunteers from the Schoharie Reformed Church that fed thousands of volunteers and flood victims.
Not all of the home’s historic elements were destroyed by initial recovery work after the storm, and some progress has already been made in the building.
Several centuries-old windows were removed and stored after the flood, and a new heating system was installed to prevent frost damage, with the help of a $25,000 grant from National Grid.
“They were very, very generous,” DAR Treasurer Carolyn Richter said.
Electrical service was also replaced and the supply line was buried underground, helping to eliminate the modern look electricity gives to historic buildings.
Volunteers from the Schoharie Teachers Association also came to Lasell Hall and stuffed the gutted walls with fiberglass insulation.
Since September, when the kitchen closed, its halls have grown quiet. Richter said she’s optimistic historic elements of the Federal-style architecture that helped elevate the building to the National Register of Historic Places will be restored.
She said the organization initially got word from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that the building didn’t provide “vital services” and disaster funding was unlikely. But recent correspondence indicates FEMA is going to provide disaster assistance for an historic restoration estimated at roughly $400,000.
“We’re very excited,” Richter said.
The Albany-based firm of Mesick, Cohen, Wilson, Baker Architects developed a restoration plan for the building and will work to refine details now that funding is secured, firm principal Larry Wilson said.
Wilson said there’s been several renovations and modifications to the building since it was built, so it’s important to decide precisely what time period to revert to. There’s really no issues with the building’s structural integrity, though; Wilson said it’s a “tank.”
“The building has a lot of Dutch framing characteristics which involved heavy timbers. Structurally, it’s as solid as can be,” he said.
Anything that is accomplished has to cost no more than FEMA’s commitment to help pay for the building to be put back in the shape it was in prior to Irene.
“To a large extent, it’s almost impossible to put it back the way it was before the flood. And in many cases, you wouldn’t want to,” Wilson said.
One of the more historically interesting aspects of the building is the first-floor tavern setup, with a “great room” that was shrunk in later years with the addition of walls.
“We may well restore that tavern room. It’s very interesting historical space for them,” he said.
Other aspects of the project will include restoring the original windows, bringing unique and original characteristics back to the exterior siding, restoring mantles and molding and other features lost to flooding and gutting.
“Fortunately, the federal government is willing to help them out. It will be a stunning project,” Wilson said. “Now we have to get down to the details, and it’s going to take a lot more consideration and study in terms of being more specific.”