Brooks Academy Restoration Delayed

by William F. Galvin
The sign on the fence surrounding Brooks Academy while the foundation was replaced this past year, would still serve as an accurate notice  today. FILE PHOTO The sign on the fence surrounding Brooks Academy while the foundation was replaced this past year, would still serve as an accurate notice today. FILE PHOTO

HARWICH – Since 2019 the town has appropriated nearly $2.6 million for restoration projects at Brooks Academy, constructed as a seminary in 1844 and currently home for the Harwich Historical Society and the Brooks Academy Museum.

But funding to complete the work, including making the building accessible to the disabled, has been removed from the town’s capital plan.

Until the work is completed, an occupancy permit can’t be issued and no one, including historical society officials, can use the building.

The capital plan was carrying a facilities maintenance project request for $1,160,000 in fiscal 2025 for the building, but it was removed because the town does not have the money to fund it. The funding included a limited-use lift access elevator for the historic structure. State regulations require that if the cost of work on a building exceeds 30 percent of the building’s assessed value, the entire building must be brought into access compliance for persons with disabilities. Work on Brooks Academy well exceeds that threshold.

Officials hope to restore the funding and put it before voters at a fall special town meeting, after free cash is certified. If not, the plan is to provide the necessary funds to address the building’s remaining needs in the fiscal 2026 capital plan.

“The select board is not removing it from the plan entirely,” said select board member Jeffrey Handler. “I view it as a strategic effort to fund these things in the fall town meeting.”

The removal of the request from the capital plan caught the attention of historical society officials, who say the delay could impact plans to celebrate the nation’s 250th birthday in 2026.

“We’re approaching an extremely important time historically, our 250th anniversary of Independence,” said Lynne Zalesak, chair of the Brooks Academy Commission. “Harwich played a major part in that, sending 284 soldiers. People will be coming to Harwich to conduct research, researching genealogy, and the museum won’t be open.”

The building also needs work so it does not deteriorate any further, said Zalesak. She explained all of the historical society’s artifacts are stored there and there are concerns for damage from animals.

“The building is the centerpiece of our town. It was the first maritime academy in the United States,” added Zalesak.

“You can’t put a monetary value on the history of this place,” said Anita Doucette, president of the Harwich Historical Society. “We need to see Harwich for the history we have. It’s sad we’ve gotten to the point where we have to fight for the history of our town.”

Members of the select board have spent two meetings going back and forth over the decision made by Town Administrator Joseph Powers to remove the funding, discussing whether to leave it out or restore it. Board members made it clear they are all supporters of Brooks Academy projects, having supported $2,595,000 in funding requests since 2019.

Handler recommended that the capital plan that will go before voters in the annual session in May include an explanation on how the board plans to move forward to fund the building needs. Three items were removed from the plan, including road work funding for the department of public works and money for a golf department irrigation update. The board voted to place explanations in the appendix to the capital plan to be presented to voters.

In the meantime, accessing Brooks Academy is a major issue. The town entered into a contract last May with Spencer Preservation Group, the architectural firm overseeing the basement renovation project, to prepare and submit a variance application to the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board to allow access to spaces that cannot be made accessible and used by the public.

Variances can be granted when the state board determines access is not feasible technologically or would result in excessive and unreasonable costs without any substantial benefit to physically handicapped persons. In some instances, variances are granted when compliance causes a financial or operational hardship.

Select Board member Donald Howell had raised questions about accessing just the first floor of the building. The longtime chairlift going to the second floor is inoperable. He wanted to know if a waiver could be issued and took issue with the amended contract with Spencer Preservation Group funding a variance request from the state agency. That variance was never sought, according to Powers.

Howell noted the matter was raised in a memo dated on Aug. 7 and added that he raised issues about the variance status a month ago. The board and the town’s contracting office failure is causing a self-created emergency, he said.

Powers said he checked with Building Commissioner Jack Mee about a waiver and was told it could be addressed through a temporary occupancy permit.

“The building official is authorized to issue a temporary certificate of occupancy before the completion of the entire work covered by the permit, provided that such a portion or portions shall be occupied safely,” Powers wrote in a memo. He added that there was concern about the liability of allowing people in the building before the renovation projects are completed. Temporary occupancy permits are usually predicated on having a “high degree of certainty as to when the project would be completed and the building, therefore, in full compliance with state building code,” he wrote.

Both Zalesak and Doucette questioned why the funding request was removed from the capital plan.

“It’s a plan, not a budget, keep it there. The public wants to know this project is moving forward,” Doucette said. “People are concerned it’s not moving forward.”

Last May, $690,000 in Community Preservation Act funds were approved for renovation and restoration work planned for the building’s windows, ceilings, siding and the cupola, but a contract has yet to be issued for that work.

Both Doucette and Zalesak are concerned that if a town meeting is not called for the fall, and funding for the project has to wait until the annual town meeting in 2026, that necessary work will not be completed until 2027.