January 21, 2022

Connecticut River Museum has Spent $500,000 to Restore Historic Landmark After Fire

Destroyed East face, roof and decking of CT River Museum after August 2010 fire

The Connecticut River Museum, located at 67 Main Street in downtown Essex, had two choices in the wake of the devastating fire that took place on August 11, 2010, a fire which caused enormous damage to the Museum’s building, as well as to its decking.

One approach would have been to repair the damage, essentially, to the extent that the insurance money would cover the costs, and then hope for the best that other repairs, some very necessary, could be deferred until another day.

The second approach would address every single item that needed to be repaired, and in the process restore the museum not only to the condition of what it was before the fire, but perhaps even improve it from what it was. This full restoration plus choice, obviously, would cost a lot more money than the first, bare bones scenario.

The Board of Trustees of the Connecticut River Museum never blinked. They whole heartedly adopted the second alternative of fully repairing and restoring the Museum. In doing so, the Board chose to address every single item that required repair and the full restoration of the Museum.

Executive Director Jerry Roberts pridefully shows off restored Connectiuc River Museum

Furthermore, in adopting the full restoration plan the Board implicitly accepted the responsibility to raise the necessary money.

Board of Directors Chairman Maureen Wiltsie-O’Grady in a recent interview said, “The Museum had to be restored, because of the love that the community has for the Museum.” She added, “It is just a jewel. The fire made people think what Essex would be like without the Museum.”

Board Chairman Maureen Wilsie-O'Grady points to announcements at new Museum portal

These observations by the Chairman underscored the fact that the increased public attention and sympathy that was generated by the fire could be converted into a unique fundraising opportunity to pay for the level of restoration needed to ensure that the Museum would withstand the next 100 years.

With the stars thus aligned, the Museum Board, led by former Chairman Timothy Boyd, and the staff, led by the energetic Executive Director Jerry Roberts, went ahead and successfully raised the funds needed to repair the fire damage, and enhance generally the Museum’s building and grounds.

The fundraising steps included the establishment of the CMT Fire Fund for donations from Museum trustees, members and the public at large, as well as a successful effort to attract new government grants for the Museum’s restoration. Both these steps were in addition to achieving the Museum’s already established fundraising goals for the Annual Fund Appeal, Fall Ball, RIVERFARE and Privateers’ Bash.

These aggressive, and breathtakingly successful, fundraising steps has allowed the Museum, to date, to expend over a half million dollars, $565,500 to be exact, to repair and restore the Museum to a point where it is in even better condition than it was before the fire.

For example, with the funds raised the entire east face of the Museum building, which was destroyed by the fire, has been fully repaired and restored.

Similarly, large portions of the roof and the decking, which were destroyed by the fire, have been restored, as has the third floor gallery, which suffered water damage, and the Museum building, which experienced smoke damage.

Also included in this roster of fully paid for items was the installation of 29 new, energy efficient, museum-quality windows, as well as the installation of 70 new pilings under the decking of the Museum.

A further breakdown of the fully paid for repairs and restoration in the wake of the fire are as follows:

Building restoration and repair

This $300,000 item paid for by insurance monies and private donations, included a smoke and water clean-up; roof and siding repairs; window replacement of four fire destroyed windows and the upgrade of 25 other gallery windows; replacement of the building sign; repair of indoor mural; removal of carpets and restoration of the original wood flooring on the second and third floors.

Decking replacement and repair

This $185,000 item, which was funded from grants, donations and insurance, as well as funds from the Museum’s own historic building maintenance fund, provided money to replace the substructure pilings and decking surrounding the Museum building.

Grant funds for this project included $73,955 from the Connecticut Commission on Cultural and Tourism’s Historic Preservation Office.

Perimeter and Security/Grounds

In this category, $80,000 of private donations funded a new Museum perimeter security project, coupled with a grounds’ renovation plan. This initiative included new lights, a new portal at the entrance of the property, new walkways and the refurbishment of plantings. This project is now in its final stage of completion.

As for the new portal, according to Roberts, it will serve two purposes: 1) to establish a demarcation line between town property and Museum property, so that Museum property can be gated after hours, or whenever necessary, and 2) to provide information about Museum exhibits, programs and events.

The items regarding the perimeter and the security of the Museum property, obviously, go beyond simply repairing the Museum’s fire damages. Also, one of the items in this initiative has been objected to by a few Essex residents.

Specifically, the new portal structure, a few residents charge, takes away from the sense of openness of the Museum’s grounds that existed previously. Museum officials acknowledge that there have been a few objections to the portal structure; however, they assert that the objections are far from general, and that the upsides of the portal far outweigh the downsides, particularly from the standpoint of the Museum’s security.

Also, this very minor ruffle should in no way take away from the monumental achievement of the Museum’s Board and staff, who on their watch brilliantly restored the Connecticut River Museum to a condition that is even better than it was before the fire. In so doing they have preserved this historic asset for the edification and enjoyment of generations to come.