The Ellen Stone Building has served many community functions in the nearly 200 years since it was built in 1833: Home; abolitionist gathering space; transcendentalist hub; and, most recently, a branch library once frequented by many East Lexington families.
Today, the Greek-Revival style building sits empty, as it has since a pipe burst in 2007 and shuttered the library branch. But after a Select-Board-appointed committee compiled a report to explore possibilities to give the Town-owned building new life last year, the inertia that has led the building to gather dust for more than 15 years has been punctuated by concerted citizen advocacy to turn it into a modern-day lyceum.
On Wednesday, at least in part in response to that advocacy, Town Meeting voted to approve $400,000 in Community Preservation Act design funds as a first step in a phased process proposed by Town Manager Jim Malloy to restore the building to a usable state and find a viable tenant.
In the scheme of funds Town Meeting approves, $400,000 is a small sum. But in total, the construction and design funds Malloy estimated would be necessary to renovate the Stone Building over the next phases of the project amount to about $10 million. Some Town finance leaders in town, including Capital Expenditures Committee Chair Charles Lamb, were concerned that the Town was pursuing such an expensive project without having yet determined an end user.
“This entire committee, including the [one] member who recommended approval, are all strongly concerned about: the overall project price; whether this program is a want or a need; that this project must and will follow the Town’s Integrated Building Design and Construction Policy; that we do not incur any more CPA debt funding than is necessary; and the apparent lack of any prioritization of this project against other known future-year projects that target CPA funds,” Lamb summarized.
He added that “we most certainly have a fiduciary and moral obligation to maintain this historic structure,” but encouraged Town Meeting members to question whether the proposed $10 million overall project price tag was too high. In light of the number of major Town projects on the horizon over the next five years that will ask for CPA funding, “We simply must prioritize our limited CPA funds lest we borrow ourselves into oblivion.”
The majority of CEC committee members opposed the article, though the Lyceum Advocates won over multiple Appropriation Committee members.
But a few Town Meeting Members and lyceum advocates made an ardent case that the Town would be allowing a local treasure to waste away by delaying repairs to the building any longer. They imagined the space being restored to serve as a powerful educational resource for students, tourists and community members to learn about abolitionism and transcendentalism.
“I’d like you all to lay aside the cost consideration for a moment, and to think about the potential benefits that renovating the building might bring to Lexington, as well as to how it might support Town goals and values,” said Janel Showalter, Vice President of the Lexington Lyceum Advocates. “We clearly and rightfully demonstrate how much we value our revolutionary history; the Stone Building can provide a complement to this history by expanding the Town’s narrative into the 19th century and demonstrating how we didn’t just impact our nation’s beginning, but the nation it has become.”
Town Meeting Member Deborah Strod (P6) said she typically “would do pretty much anything the CEC suggests” on questions of Town finance. But in this case, she strongly supported moving forward with design funds for the Stone Building. “16 years is long enough” for the building to be empty, she said. “We will have to do some difficult prioritization, but I would put this forth as a priority.”
Town Meeting supported the funding with 113 votes in favor, 50 opposed and eight abstentions. Town Meeting Member Tom Díaz (P8) served notice of reconsideration for the article, which is the first step to allow the article to potentially be taken up again once other Town Meeting business has been addressed at the end of next month.
Editor’s Note: LexObserver has collaborated with the Lexington Lyceum Advocates in co-sponsoring a series of community conversation events. All reporting on Article 10a and the Stone Building is conducted independently of the Lyceum Advocates.