WILMINGTON- After six hearings over five months, Wilmington artist Ann Coleman received a permit in February to build a new gallery building on the same spot as her former gallery, which was washed into the Deerfield River during the flood of 2011. But she and her husband, Joe Specht, still face challenges, not the least of which is opposition to the building’s design by some of their fellow downtown merchants and property owners.
The permit, granted three weeks after the final zoning hearing, gives conditional approval for a building that’s substantially different than Coleman’s original gallery. The new building’s footprint is about 48 square feet larger than the old building, but because the new gallery will be a two-story building, the floor space is more than doubled. Although the building will have a sloped roof to shed water and snow, the façade will give the illusion of a flat-roofed building. The new gallery will be handicap accessible, with a ramp wrapping around the front of the building from the east side. Other design elements include a small balcony at the back. An overhanging roof on the front of the building requested in the application was denied.
The new building, designed by Wilmington architect Joseph Cincotta, incorporates several features to prevent future flood damage and conform with local and FEMA flood mitigation requirements. The first floor of the building is 12 inches above base flood elevation, and the structure will be waterproofed to three feet above the floor.
But the building’s most unusual feature is its ability to ride out a flood above the high water line. In the event of a flood, the entire building will float, rising off its foundation with the water but remaining tethered to the spot by four metal posts buried deeply in the soil at each corner of the building.
In the event of a flood, Coleman and Specht will be able to unhook the building from utilities, such as water and sewer, using a quick-disconnect system. Panels that slide into a groove in the exterior doors and windows will complete the waterproof barrier, completing the transformation from an art gallery to an “ark” gallery that will ride out the flood.
Coleman says the floodproof design is not only the reason she wants to rebuild on the same spot on which her destroyed gallery stood, it’s also the reason she hasn’t considered making a permanent home for her gallery in any other downtown building. “With any other building, I’d have a concern about flooding,” she says. “Inevitably, downtown will flood again.”
Although the floating design is unusual in New England, Specht says similar designs have been used in other flood-prone areas of the United States. “After the storm there was a lot of talk about the need for innovative designs to anticipate future flooding,” he says. “People have told me about similar designs used in Venice, Holland, and Louisiana. Right after the flood I ran into Joseph (Cincotta) and said we’ll have to put the town up on stilts. He came back with a design that addressed future flooding.”
Coleman and Specht say they’re happy that the development review board approved almost all of the waivers and variances requested in their permit. They’re still hoping to add a small roof or canopy to the front of the building to keep rain and snow off the handicap ramp. But rather than appeal the current decision, they decided to work with the DRB and zoning administrator to find a solution that will fit the zoning criteria.
But some of Coleman’s downtown neighbors aren’t as enamored with the new building’s design. At least 23 downtown property owners and businesses signed a letter to Coleman asking her to drop the design and start the process over again. Some of those who signed the letter have expressed concern that the design strays from traditional New England village style typified in Wilmington’s historic district.
“In Wilmington, we have seven of the 11 accepted styles of architecture (for the 19th century period of the village),” says downtown business and property owner Lilias Hart, who also holds a degree in historic preservation. “This (Coleman’s building) is not one of them. Go to Newfane, and there’s only three. Go to Dorset and it’s the same thing. What we have is unbelievable.”
But although Hart hopes Coleman will change the design, she says Coleman and Cincotta are not to blame. “There’s a loophole in the historic district zoning regulations, and it all hinges on the word ‘style,’” she says. “Either you accept the formal styles, or every building is a ‘style.’ From an architectural history point of view, that’s an incorrect way of defining style.”
Coleman points out that there are at least five other buildings in or near the historic district that have a similar look, including the Lamorder building, the Village Pub, and even the Parmelee & Howe building. The venerable brick building was constructed in 1930 to replace a wooden structure that had been destroyed by fire. One of the town’s most loved buildings today, Coleman says she has learned that the flat-roofed brick structure also raised controversy when it was built because it looked so different than the building it replaced.
Coleman says that the two-story design of the building is practical. “It wouldn’t be cost-effective without the second story,” she says. “And if we were to put a peaked roof on a two-story building of that size, it would be out of proportion – it would look too high.”
Hart and others who object to Coleman’s design plan to discuss changes to the regulation with planning commission members, but they acknowledge that any changes to existing regulations wouldn’t affect Coleman’s permit. “This is a done deal,” says Susan Spengler, who also signed the letter. “The only option is to spread the word (about the design) and hope enough people will tell her that they don’t like the way it looks.”
Spengler says that Coleman has an obligation to those who have donated to her cause. “It’s not what was portrayed on the sign where the old gallery was,” she said. “People assumed that’s what they were giving to.”
Some of those who have objected suggest that the economic viability of the village could be threatened. “With the bitown and other economic development efforts, we’re trying to make certain there are opportunities down here,” Hart says. “The preservation of the historic district is vital.”
“We’re talking about 100 years,” says downtown business and property owner Kathy Costello, referring to the length of Coleman’s lease of the land on which the building will sit. “And the legacy of this town.” Coleman and Specht say they have no intention of changing their design, and no interest in going through the design and permit process a second time. They’re hoping to begin the process of selecting a contractor soon, with the expectation of starting work sometime in the summer or fall.
Like the Parmelee & Howe building, they say the new structure will eventually become an accepted part of the landscape. Specht says resistance to change is inevitable. “To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”