Couple fight to save barn once a venue for big band music

By Barbara Tetreault

SHELBURNE — Carl and Jen Lessard are facing long odds in their struggle to save a colorful piece of the region’s past.

Three years ago, the couple purchased what is now known as the Aston-Lessard barn and carriage house at foreclosure. Built in the 1880s as part of the “Wyndham Villa” estate on the Androscoggin River, the barn later served as a dance hall that attracted such Big Band era names as Louise Prima, Bob Crosby (brother of Bing), Jimmy Dorsey and Rosemary Clooney.

The Lessards moved into the carriage house, which had been converted into a home but the large two-level barn was in tough shape. Alterations made to the structure to convert the second floor to a dance hall had compromised the integrity of the building.

But the more the couple learned about its amazing history, the more they became determined to make every effort to save it.

“I don’t want to be the guy that tears it down,” said Carl Lessard.

Last fall, the couple succeeded in getting the barn listed on the N.H. Preservation Alliance’s “Seven to Save” list. The list highlights special properties across the state that are threatened in the hope that the attention will help efforts to save them. The release describes the properties selected as “the sort of places you can’t imagine your community without.”

An appraisal estimated it would cost $200,000 and that was before a 40-foot section of the roof collapsed last winter under the heavy snow load. Carl Lessard has put up tarps and taken steps to try and protect the barn from continued deterioration

“It’s a really tough case,” said Beverly Thomas, program director at the Preservation Alliance and manager of its Old House and Barn program.

She said an assessment of the barn, done through her organization, revealed the barn was salvageable but the cost would be expensive.

The roofing and framing were identified as major needs with the foundation and exterior sheathing also a concern. The barn measures 40 feet wide, 110 feet in length, and almost 40 feet in height. The exterior sheathing is finished with white cedar wood shingles. A 10-by-110-foot section was added onto the entire north eaves.

The main reason for the barn’s condition today can be traced back to the period between 1920-1940, when all the tie beams and posts were removed to create room for a dance floor. Removing a critical piece of the barn’s integrity led to sagging walls which endure the weight of the massive roof and created structural instability overall.

Thomas said she does not know of any funding source for privately owned barns. She said her organization hoped placing the barn on the 2016 “Seven to Save” list would create awareness of the barn and its unique history. The alliance also recommended Lessard create a Facebook and webpage about his effort to save the barn, which he has done.

“His heart is certainly in the right place,” Thomas said, adding that she admires Carl Lessard for his dedication to saving the barn and preserving its history.

And what a history it is — some of it shrouded in mystery and much of it fading as time goes on.

The barn was originally part of a large estate built in the 1880s by a wealthy New Yorker named William K. Aston.

In his book, “Summer Cottage in the White Mountains,” Bryant Tolles said “Wyndham Villa” was at one time “one of the White Mountain’s largest and most important summer vacation farm retreats” attracting attention for “the brilliance, uniqueness and sophistication of its architecture.”

Yet, Tolles said little in known about Aston, and the architect of the estate is not known. He said one newspaper source described Aston as a relative of the Vanderbilt family. Others, Tolles said, identify him as a German-American lawyer who traveled to Shelburne on business for a client named Aston. That version said he became Aston’s heir with the provision that he change his last name to Aston. With his substantial inheritance, he bought up land along the south side of the Androscoggin River in Shelburne.

Tolles’ research indicates the main villa was built in 1884-86 and his book describes it as a cedar shingled two-and-a-half story cottage with 12 principal rooms and a great view of the northern Presidentials. Along with the main house were a caretaker’s cottage, an immense horse barn, and a stable/carriage house. An icehouse, greenhouses, and other outbuildings also existed and the ground contained stone walls, pathways, stone animal figures and entrance gates.

Aston did not enjoy his luxury estate long before his fortunes changed and he sold off his much of his land holdings, starting in 1903.

In 1918, he sold the buildings to William Rogers Chapman of Bethel, Maine, according to Tolles. Chapman had dreams to create a regional music center and when that didn’t happen, he sold it to a Dr. Frank Gordon. Gordon tried to operate a silver fox farm, which Tolles said failed, leaving local investors out a considerable sum.

Sometime in the 1920s, Dominic and Rena Poretta purchased the estate. Dominic Poretta sold the main house to his brother, Leo, who converted it into the Shelburne Inn, added some cabins, and opened up a restaurant there as well. Leo Porette owned and operated the Shelburne Inn until it burned in 1960.

Dominic and Rena Poretta kept the barn and transformed the second floor into a dance hall and roller skating ring. Documents provided by Lessard report the hardwood floor was perfect for dancing and roller skating and the couple added a giant crystal ball and named the place, “The Shelburne Inn Dance Hall” although some reports indicate it was also known as the Shelburne Pavilion

It was the Big Band era and Dominic Poretta was successful in attracting some big name acts to include the Shelburne stop on their tours. Visitors from across New England as well as locals would drive out to the barn to see big-name acts like Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Glen Miller, and Harry James perform there.

Lessard said cars would be parked up and down the village road as well as on what is now Route 2. There was a little gazebo outside the barn where people would sit outdoors and enjoy the music.

“It was a big deal,” said Aldea D’Alfonso.

The Conway woman said her uncle helped manage the ballroom and roller ring for Poretta and got her father Carmen D’Alfonso a job there as well. Her parents would have their wedding reception there.

D’Alfonso said her father and uncle had great memories of their days at the Shelburne Dance. One of her father’s favorite stories was the jazz singer (and aunt of George Clooney) Rosemary Clooney asking him for a hand. Her father, D’Alfonso said, replied that he could give her two hands.

In a letter to Lessard, Doris Buotte said she met her future husband at the dance hall and they married within a year. The 1948 Berlin High graduate, said the couple was fortunate to see Louis Prima and Count Basie perform there.

“It was,” she said, “a place to go, meet old friends, and dance the evening away.”

Times change and the big band era died out. By 1955, D’Alfonso said the dance hall had closed.

Carl Lessard grew up in Berlin but moved to Connecticut after high school where he worked as an auto mechanic and also taught at Lincoln Technical Institute. He owned a small lighting company and did event lighting for several high school productions and various events. Lessard said he also worked as a lighting technician for several music festivals.

On a visit to his sister in Berlin, he met Jen and he moved back when the two married. In 2014, the pair purchased the Shelburne carriage house at a foreclosure auction and got the barn as well.

Carl Lessard said he started hearing stories of the dance hall and began studying its history. The more he learned, the more he became an advocate for saving the barn.
Sitting on what was the old stage, he said the place speaks to him.

“I sit here and I can hear the music playing and people dancing.”

While the odds seem stacked against him, Lessard said he is not ready to give up.

“This came to me for a reason. I have to try and save it,” he said.

Contact information for Lessard can be found at Aston-Lessard Barn on Facebook or astonlessardbarn@gmail. Written correspondence should be send to Carl Lessard, 991 State Route 2, Shelburne, 03581.

Council hears about infrared asphalt repair

By Barbara Tetreault

BERLIN — Impressed after viewing a presentation on using infrared asphalt repair technology to repair potholes and trench cuts in streets, the city council Monday night asked City Manager James Wheeler to identify funds in the current budget to purchase the needed equipment.

Wheeler and Public Works Director Mike Perreault said the process calls for removing and grinding up the top layer of asphalt. The infrared heating panel is used to heat the pavement and then the old pavement, with a little fresh pavement added, is put back down and fused to the existing surface. The result is a continuous surface without seams that allow water or snow to penetrate. The process is quicker and cheaper because most of the old pavement is reused. And the repair work can be done year-around, eliminating the need for cold patching.

Wheeler said trailer mounted infrared unit would cost around $60,000 to $75,000. He suggested the cost could be spread among the public works, sewer and water works departments.

Grenier said the equipment would likely pay for itself over time with reduced labor and material costs. Plus the city is left with a superior repair job.

City Councilor Diana Nelson asked about training. Perreault said that would be provided by the manufacturer or seller of the equipment. Wheeler said the city would go out for bids but noted there is a distributor for one manufacturer in southern New Hampshire.

Wheeler said he would put the infrared asphalt equipment in the capital budget for fiscal 2019.

Grenier noted the 2019 budget is not approved until mid-June 2018, meaning the city would not have the equipment available most of that construction season. He asked Wheeler to try and identify funds in the current budget so the city could have the equipment next spring.

The city manager agreed to review the budget and report back to the council.

City Clerk Elaine Riendeau reported that many local vendors at events like the Drive into the 50’s, Jericho ATV Festival, and RiverFire are neglecting to apply for a required hawker/peddlers license from the city. The permit, which is good for a year, is $100. To get a license, the vendor must present a copy of their New Hampshire license and a certificate of insurance.

In addition, she said state law requires any person or persons selling or bartering good, wares, food or merchandise must obtain a state permit. She said the state permit is $50 and must be purchased for any person collecting money. Exceptions are itinerant vendors, people selling products of their own labor, yard sales, non-profit organizations, and antiques sales.

Berlin Health Officer Angela Martin-Giroux said it was her understanding that people did not need to be licensed for special events. But Riendeau said city officials held a conference call with the N.H. Secretary of State’s office and was told permits were required. Businesses selling on their own property do not need licenses.

Councilor Diana Nelson said the chamber is having trouble getting vendors for some of its events already. She predicted some will not want to pay the $100, noting they also have other fees and permits such as fire and health inspections. Nelson said the chamber has liability insurance that covers vendors at its events. She said she understands that the city wants some control over vendors.

Councilor Peter Higbee said most vendors at the farmers market are selling their own goods and products. But he said there are some food vendors, and if the fee pushes them away, it will hurt the market because the food is a draw.

Grenier asked if the city has to charge a fee for the permit. Remillard said the city could waive the fee for events sponsored by the chamber or Berlin Main Street Program.

Grenier suggested the council devote a future work session to the issue and look at how other communities handle vendors. He suggested staff also talk to police, chamber, and Main Street Program officials to gather ideas.

As the last public agenda item, the council officially certified the Nov. 7 election results. Mayor Paul Grenier and Councilors Russell Otis, Diana Nelson, Lucie Remillard, and Mike Rozek were all re-elected as were school board members Nicole Plourde, Denise Valerino, Louise Valliere and Scott Losier. The new terms start in January.

The council then went into non-public to discuss a letter from Vivian Isaacson, informing the council that the Beth Israel Cemetery is being turned over to the city.

Writing on behalf of her husband Fred Isaacson, she said the cemetery is out of funds. She said the private cemetery is being turned over to the city with the understanding that the existing Jewish area will remain strictly as a Jewish cemetery.

Isaacson said there are seven available lots with four graves in each lot. In addition, she said there is an undeveloped lower area separate from the Jewish cemetery with 40 lots that could be open to people of any faith.

Selectmen mull 2 new fees, no tax dollars for July 4th

By Edith Tucker
The Berlin Sun

GORHAM — In their effort to be prepared to hand thoroughly reviewed 2018 budgets over to the town budget committee early in the New Year, the select board has already made its first pass through all the department budgets that town employees are proposing. Many still need some tweaking or clarification.

But board members have also come up with some of their own spending and revenue changes.

Selectman Patrick Lefebvre said he would like to see by the fire department charge inspection fees, which, he stated, is what most municipalities already do.

“These fees will make a difference,” he said.

Lefebvre also proposed that all the Fourth of July costs that taxpayers have typically paid should now be raised from businesses, such as Brookfield and the Portland Natural Gas Transmission System, individual donations and vendor fees. This would eliminate both a $5,306 line item for “patriotic purposes,” designed for extra police coverage, and a $10,000 capital outlay item to cover the festive fireworks on the Common, already proposed as a warrant article.

N.H. Grand’s website described the 2017 festivities as Gorham, ringing in the holiday with the state’s longest 4th of July celebration, June 30 to July 4, with parades, music, amusements and a classic car show, plus fun, food and merriment. The board noted that townspeople would have the option of voting at the March 13, 2018, town meeting to keep the status quo.

The board also discussed requiring residents and property owners to pay a fee for a windshield sticker for use of the public works transfer station. Now some citizens, possibly including short-term visitors, take tires, refrigerators, TVs and air conditioners to the Androscoggin Valley Regional Refuse Disposal District transfer station on Route 110 in Berlin, which, in turn, charges Gorham its disposal fee. The selectmen agreed that those working at Gorham’s Public Works Department should not have to handle cash, so the stickers would be sold at town hall. They want to give Public Works Director Austin “Buddy” Holmes a chance to weigh in on this idea, especially since they believe that the in-town transfer station should be open on Saturdays.

 

GPT agrees to pay all back taxes and then to keep current

By Edith Tucker
The Berlin Sun

GORHAM — Gorham Paper and Tissue, LLC, and the Town of Gorham have signed an addendum to the property tax settlement they signed nearly a year and a half ago on June 27, 2016.

The select board voted unanimously on Monday night to approve the new document already signed by GPT’s top officers: CEO Dick Arnold and CFO Wayne Johnson. Select board chairman Terry Oliver then signed the agreement.

Under the new payment agreement, GPT will resume the back tax payments that were suspended, with the select board’s permission, after the mill made a $15,000 payment on Aug. 7.

The total accumulated arrearage over the three months of nonpayment is $195,000 through Nov. 9. The mill, apparently hampered by an insufficient cash flow, needed to retain the funds to buy raw materials so it could fulfill a big order on the tissue machine under the name White Mountain Tissue.

The revised payment agreement provides that GPT will resume its weekly payments at a rate of $7,500 from Nov. 9 through its Jan. 4, 2018 payment.

Starting Jan. 11, GPT will make weekly payments of $15,000 through March 29, 2018.

Starting April 5, 2018, GPT will make weekly payments of $25,000 until all taxes owed are entirely paid through the final 2017 tax bill.

The precise schedule references specific properties and tax years 2015, 2016, and 2017. GPT agreed to finish paying its back property taxes with a final payment on July 19, 2018.

The agreement specifies that if — and only if — the three payment schedules are kept, the town will “waive all interest, costs and penalties due (that are) associated with Tax Years 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017.”

Finally, beginning with the Town’s 2018 tax bills, GPT will make payment “in the ordinary course,” as required under state law.

Town Manager Robin Frost, who negotiated the agreement with GPT, was pleased.

“The fact that the Town and GPT came together to work out this agreement shows the commitment both parties have to the jobs GPT currently offers to area residents,” she noted in a Monday night email. “They are hiring some of the area’s younger people to work in the mill as the long-term workers are retiring out. As you heard the auditor (Paul Mercier, CPA, of Canterbury) say, if we weren’t getting monies in from GPT, we would be in a much worse financial condition.”

Right now, the total owed by GPT is $640,921.49, which includes the actual second-half 2017 combined tax bills that total $162,225 plus the first payment of $7,500, she said.

GPT has about 110 employees. When vacancies occur, GPT hires through the local N. H. Employment Security office on Pleasant Street in Berlin.

GPT started operations in May 2011 when funds managed by Patriarch Partners, LLC, a private investment firm founded by Lynn Tilton in 2000, bought the former Fraser Papers paper mill on the banks of the Androscoggin River.

Mercier spent time on Monday discussing his audit of the town’s 2016 financial statements and supplemental schedules as of Dec. 31, 2016. Selectman Mike Waddell asked most of the questions, many of which he said were supplied by townspeople and budget committee members.

Mercier explained the importance of the unassigned fund balance which totaled only $305,619 on Dec. 31, 2016. This is a decrease of $492,593 from a year earlier on Dec. 31, 2015 when it totaled almost $800,000. This very low number kept the selectmen from using some of it to reduce the $2.10 tax rate increase they recently set for 2017.

He said that the $450,000 subtraction from the Allowance for Uncollectible Receivables represented the eight Munce’s properties that were tax deeded to the town on Jan. 2017. The town sold these properties for only $12,000, $438,000 less than was owed in back taxes. Their sale opens the way, however, for new taxpaying enterprises to locate on these properties, the auditor pointed out.

Uncollected taxes on Dec. 31, 2016, totaled $665,801 and timber yield tax, $4,659, for a total of $670,460.

Unredeemed taxes, under tax liens, totaled $1,194,835, stretching back to levies in 2013, 2014, 2015 and even earlier.

By adding the uncollected and the unredeemed together, the audit shows that Gorham was owed a total of $1,415,295 in taxes on Dec. 31, 2016. N.H. law requires that within 18 months of the date assessed, the tax collector places  a lien on properties for all uncollected property taxes in the following year after taxes are due. Interest accrues at 18 percent a year. If property is not redeemed within the two-year redemption period, the property is tax-deeded to the town.

These sums are not part of the unassigned fund balance because they are not readily collectible or easily convertible to cash, should the town need it. Some of these accounts could ultimately be deemed uncollectable. Waddell called this million-dollar-plus problem the “elephant in the room.”

Mercier said that the state’s rule of thumb is for a town to have five month’s operating cost in its unassigned fund balance.

There are only two ways to build that up, Mercier said: take in more revenues or spend less.

Frost noted that the agreement just reached with GPT is a step in the right direction because these overdue taxes — now committed to be paid by mid-July, 2018 — will be available for this account.

Mercier also noted that the town’s recreation sector has grown, although no specific dollar increase can be cited.

Budget committee members and other interested townspeople can go to town hall to watch the videotape of Mercier’s take on the town’s finances.

Assessing clerk Michelle Lutz reported that 107 taxpayers, who hold over 120 individual properties, either came to town hall or phoned in to discuss their preliminary assessment with KRT Appraisal, the firm hired to perform a statistical update. All these taxpayers have now received letters from KRT, she said, that either deny their claims or make adjustments to their preliminary figures. This list is posted on the town website. Information is also posted under Gorham on KRT’s own website.

Waddell said that overall, at $272 million, there had not been a huge change in valuation, and Lutz agreed. “Yard value refers to garages, sheds, pools, and driveways,” she explained. Homeowners who fail to get a demolition permit may continue to be taxed on long-gone property.

Those still not satisfied with their new assessed valuation can go through the formal abatement process at the municipal (town) level but must act by March 1, 2018, Lutz said.

If a municipality turns down a request, a property owner has until Sept. 1 to file an appeal. It may be filed either with the state Board of Tax and Land Appeals or Superior Court, not both.

Selectman Patrick Lefebvre complained that the only homeowners in his Cascade Flats neighborhood who had had their assessments reduced had talked at town hall with appraisers in person and not, as he and others had been forced to, by phone. Short notice and work obligations were a problem. He said he was further hampered by a lack of “qualified” comparable properties.

Assessments are a “snapshot in time,” Lutz said.

Taxpayers must check the facts on their tax cards, Waddell said.

Other taxpayers have complained that the KRT assessors did not knock on doors and offer to inspect, even if a property owner was home.

The board will hold a public hearing at 6:15 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 20, in the Medallion Opera House to hear what citizens think about the idea of contracting with Berlin for police and dispatch services.