A historic St. Johnsbury building is being renovated into apartments and commercial spaces
In 1909, a mixed-use building called Bertrand’s Hall opened in St. Johnsbury. It served as an armory for the Vermont National Guard with space for target practice, officer housing, four top-floor tenements and a grand ballroom that hosted many large social functions over the years.
The stately brick building located on the edge of one of downtown’s busiest streets will begin undergoing renovations this year to once again become a mixed-used space — this time with nine middle-income apartments, two commercial spaces and touches of public art.
The nonprofit Northern Forest Center, which supports investment and environmental stewardship across forested communities in the northern parts of Vermont, New York, New Hampshire and Maine, is leading the project.
“The market doesn’t do a good job of providing housing that’s affordable for your nurses, teachers, service professionals — the folks kind of right at the state median income level or a bit higher,” said Evan Oleson, who is overseeing the project for the center. “Those are really key people to have in your community … if they can’t live close by and have housing that they enjoy and gives them a place to settle over the long term, that community can suffer.”
The historic building, which went on to become a hotel, most recently hosted several commercial tenants, according to Oleson.
In St. Johnsbury, the apartments at 560 Railroad St. will range in size from studios to three-bedrooms, and current rent projections range from $950 a month to around $2,000 a month. According to Oleson, rent prices will be calculated based on the Vermont Housing Finance Agency’s affordability table — information that the Northern Forest Center will confirm with local businesses.
“We’re responding to what the community brought to us as a gap in housing,” Oleson said. “The Kingdom and other areas are really lucky to have wonderful affordable housing providers like Rural Edge and others, and then there is some new construction of more high-end homes because those are, I think, financially a nice play for builders and developers and others.”
Oleson said that he hopes the mixed-use, middle-income project inspires other developers and organizations to provide more of that type of housing.
Northern Forest Center has completed two similar projects in other states: a historic mixed-use building in Lancaster, New Hampshire, and the renovation of six neglected homes in Millinocket, Maine.
One of the two commercial spaces at the Railroad Street building will be occupied by St. Johnsbury’s Catamount Arts. According to a press release, the arts organization plans to lease an apartment and attached studio space as part of a new artist-in-residence program, the details of which should be announced later this year.
“Catamount’s goal is to create a vibrant new mixed-use housing model that can be replicated throughout the region that is intended to nourish and highlight the magic of working artists,” Catamount Arts’ Executive Director Jody Fried said in a press release.
The building plans also include public art, Oleson said, such as mural panels on the outside of the brick building and a pedestal for sculptures.
The Northern Forest Center’s project happens to be just one building away from another hopeful renovation project. The Caledonia Food Co-op is raising funds to finalize the purchase of the former Walgreens building at 502 Railroad St. this spring.
The interior demolition at 560 Railroad St. is complete and construction is expected to begin shortly, according to Oleson. The center hopes to complete the renovation by early 2025.
Funds for the $5 million redevelopment are coming from a variety of public and private sources, including a $150,000 grant from the town of St. Johnsbury’s American Rescue Plan Act funds.
“This building has played such an important part in St. Johnsbury’s history,” Northern Forest Center President Rob Riley said in a press release. “We’re bringing it back to be a vital hub in the community again so it can contribute to the town’s future.”