Bringing B.F. Brown ‘back to Life’ in Fitchburg
By Peter Jasinski
FITCHBURG -- The arm of a large crane loomed over the former B.F. Brown School Tuesday, filling the same space fire truck ladders had occupied just over two years ago.
A four-alarm fire tore through much of the vacant structure on Sept. 26, 2016, destroying nearly all of the building’s roof. The former school has largely been exposed since then, but renovations officially commenced Tuesday with the ceremonial placement of the first truss of the new roof.
The building is planned to become the Fitchburg Arts Community, a complex of affordable housing and studio spaces for local artists, but it was alumni and staff of the former school that were most represented at the “Topping-Off Celebration.”
Guests were encouraged to sign the truss prior to it being lifted by the crane. Among them was state Sen. Dean Tran, a 1989 graduate who joked after signing the truss that he had taken a penmanship class at B.F. Brown.
“Not a lot of people can write today like I can because they taught us how to write in cursive there,” Tran recalled. “This whole thing is wonderful because we’re bringing a building back to life instead of demolishing it and it could possibly become an economic engine for the city.”
The Fitchburg Arts Community is part of the ongoing neighborhood revitilization effort known as ReImagine North of Main and is being developed by NewVue Communities.
“This project is more than just putting a roof on a building. It’s about rebuilding a neighborhood,” said NewVue Executive Director Marc Dohan, who said 70 percent of the finished units will be for affordable housing.
The project had already been in development for several years by the time the fire occurred. It was believed to have been started by squatters staying in the building.
Mayor Stephen DiNatale recalled being called at 2 a.m. to be told B.F. Brown was burning.
“We drove down and it was just an inferno. Needless to say, it was a depressing morning to see that building across the street and the problems that would come with it,” he said.
Nick Capasso, director of the Fitchburg Art Museum across the street, said BF Brown had become an issue even before the fire.
“We can’t have a boarded up building in front of one of downtown Fitchburg’s tourist attractions. It doesn’t work for us,” he said.
While Capasso noted that the empty building has been one of the museum’s biggest threats, he also said it presents one of its biggest opportunities in the new people an artists community will draw in and the creativity its studio spaces will allow.
Anwar Arenas, a neighborhood resident who also attended Tuesday’s ceremony, was similarly optimistic.
“I welcome the sense of pride this project will bring to North of Main,” he said. “I’m eager for this to attract new residents to Fitchburg, who will shop downtown and be patrons of our businesses.”
According to Dohan, the roof is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. Andy Van Hazinga, president of NewVue Communities’ board of directors, said the project still has to secure the necessary permitting and funding to complete it in its entirety.
“The success of this project depends on the support of your community,” Van Hazinga told the dozens of people in attendance on Tuesday. “If you have the means, please help by supporting us financially.”
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