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Freetown begins to rejuvenate old school

Mary Rezendes-Brown, chairwoman of the Historical Commission, hopes to see the 1794 Village School restored.

George Rizer for the Boston Globe

Mary Rezendes-Brown, chairwoman of the Historical Commission, hopes to see the 1794 Village School restored.

FREETOWN — Soon passersby won't have to witness the sad decline of an 18th-century school house in the Assonet Village Historic District where, in an otherwise charming community hub, the old building has fallen into disrepair with vines growing through its walls, boarded-up windows, and a rotting roof.

In a first step toward revitalization, residents invested in weatherproofing the 1794 Village School House, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. By agreeing to match a recent $30,000 emergency grant from the state’s Historical Commission, they guaranteed the building’s leaking roof will be fixed by winter, thereby saving it from potential collapse and making way for future rehabilitation efforts.

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The building also has faulty rafters, ceiling joists, and stairs, but stopping the water damage is by far the most critical task, according to the architect hired to oversee the repair project, expected to be completed by December. 

The once-beautiful two-room, two-story schoolhouse, which has deteriorated under its leaking roof for 20 years, has played on the minds of many in this village of under 5,000, particularly town leaders, history lovers, and longtime residents bothered by its slow devolution during the past 50 years.

“It really is a classic New England schoolhouse that has gone to wrack and ruin,” Board of Selectmen chairwoman Jean Fox said of the building, located just a few steps from Freetown Town Hall, built in 1888. 

“You hate to see something that was once beautiful and meaningful in a community fall apart,” she said.

George Rizer for the Boston Globe

The 1794 building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Over years, it has sustained serious water damage

On a recent afternoon, Mary Rezendes-Brown, chairwoman of the Freetown Historical Commission, stood in front of the dilapidated structure and shook her head. “I find it sad what’s happened to it. It’s sad for a lot of people. This is a wonderful building and it’s part of our history,” she said.

Rezendes-Brown grew up within sight of the building; her brother attended classes in it before the school’s closure in 1950. She recalled his stories about opening a trap door to descend to the cellar for music lessons and the schoolboy distractions triggered by funeral proceedings in the Congregational Church, built in 1809, next door.

Not one for passive resignation, Rezendes-Brown has pushed hard to save the schoolhouse.

Standing by it now, she cradled several three-ring binders filled with paperwork for the successful grant application. She spoke about the building’s value and expressed relief that residents have agreed to match the state funding.

“We want to preserve it and make it useful,” she said.

Fox said the historical commission has demonstrated tenacity in its quest to save the schoolhouse from further neglect and water penetration.

“The building does have an illustrious history. This is not a new message. It is a message they have been trying to deliver for a number of years,” she said.

After 1950, the Village School House was used as a center for the local arts council, girls’ and boys’ Scout meetings, and other clubs before falling out of use more than two decades ago.

Charlie Van Voorhis, principal architect at New Bedford-based Van Voorhis Architects, which specializes in tackling problems presented by older buildings, was hired to oversee the project. He said the first objective must be “just to stop the water.”

“The roof is leaking and rotting some of the interior, and nothing has been done in many years. If a whole new roof is too expensive, we will at least do a temporary patch to keep the building dry for 15 years or more while resources are mustered to do more,” he said, adding the town has collected bids from qualified contractors and repairs will begin soon.

Van Voorhis said the room on the right side of the building “really looks like a turn-of-the- century classroom,” but the left-side room is in “really bad shape” with a rotten floor due to water running into it for 20 years.

Town Administrator Richard Brown said the building’s future is difficult to predict.

While the historical commission has suggested it be rehabilitated and used for meeting space and storage, Brown said the town would have to assess its needs before moving forward with such an idea.

In the future, he said, Freetown might also look toward private philanthropy to rehabilitate the building and create a business presence. While no businesses have expressed interest in the property to date, its historic charm might appeal to a company interested in creating, for instance, a corporate retreat, he said.

“I don’t think we really want to lock ourselves into anything at the moment,” Brown said.

Meanwhile, Rezendes-Brown, a retiree, said she is hoping the building will return to a semblance of its former glory sooner rather than later.

“I hope to live long enough to see this happen,” she quipped.

Meg Murphy can be reached at msmegmurphy@gmail.com.
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