New uses sought for New Milford’s Lillis building
NEW MILFORD — Could the Catherine Lillis Administration Building someday house apartment-dwellers, artists or even emergency responders’ new headquarters?
The 50 East St. site, built as a high school in 1931, is now home to the schools’ central offices. But the town is looking at other possible uses for the 23,600-square-foot brick building, which is listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places as part of the New Milford Center Historic District.
Consulting firm Pirie Associates was hired earlier this year to complete a community-based adaptive reuse study. Community members are encouraged to attend a meeting from 6 to 9 p.m. on Thursday at the senior center to offer input.
The study is funded by a $20,000 grant from the State Historic Preservation Office.
“This group is very creative and they’re thinking outside of the box,” said Kathy Castagnetta, New Milford’s community investment officer who has been overseeing the effort. “They’re bringing the community together.”
The future of the building has been a controversial topic at times due to the need to preserve its historic features, the estimated cost of renovating it and questions about where to relocate the school central offices.
Moving the schools’ central offices has been floated for years, including suggestions of relocating them to the Pettibone building.
The idea gained traction under former Mayor David Gronbach, who also proposed selling the East Street building, which was not easily accessible. The school board then changed its mind.
A recent report from KG & D Architects showed the upgrades to meet accessibility standards at the Lillis building, which because of its age has not been required to meet current standards, total $1.17 million, including $578,000 for bathroom renovations and $297,000 to install an elevator.
Mayor Pete Bass said he’s already heard of some suggestions for the building’s future, including turning it into a first responders headquarters that would house the police, fire and emergency medical services departments.
The town also received a $1.6 million offer from Dakota Partners to make it into an affordable housing complex and Bass said another company has expressed interest in converting it into an assisted living complex.
Liba Furhman, who serves on the riverfront revitalization committee and economic development corporation, said the building’s location downtown and its sewer and water access opens up the possibilities.
“That’s why it’s so important for people to come out to this because people have so many great ideas,” she said. “It’s the consultant’s responsibility to then say what’s feasible.”
She said the building could be turned into housing for young professionals or seniors or serve as an artist incubator with studio and shop space below and lofts for the artists on the upper floors. Another possibility is using the gym in the lower level for a concert and community space and town offices in other parts of the building.
“When business and offices leave downtown, no one is there to support businesses during the day,” she said. “You want some kind feature that can bring people into town.”
Castagnetta said the helipad for the hospital is on the nearly 5 acre East Street site and the parking lot behind the building is shared with Theatreworks, all of which will need to be factored into whatever decision Town Council and residents make.
Board of Education Chairman David Lawson said because the town owns the building and the school board just maintains it, they would be open to staying or moving central office staff, depending on the town’s needs.
“It has served us well for close to a century,” he said. “Whether we keep it or not, I know it will continue to serve the community.”
Pirie representatives have already held coffee conversations and talked to residents on the street and at Pettibone. They’ve also received a lot of survey results, Castagnetta said.
“They got some great ideas from the public that they’ll share Thursday,” she said.
Community input is a key part of the process. “The more information we can get from the public, the better because at the end of the day it does have to go to a town meeting,” Bass said.
Castagnetta expects the study will be completed by the end of next month.
A historic building
A key part of the building’s historic distinction is the stained glass window in the north stairwell and the murals along the hallway. The window is entitled “American Literature,” and depicts literary and historical touchstones.
It was designed by Len Howard as part of the Works Progress Administration Federal Arts Project, which was done as part of the New Deal to employ workers during the Great Depression. The New Milford piece is the only one he did as part of that project.
The building also has a series of murals in the hallways showing the progress of American civilization.
“It’s got some history behind it, particularly the stained glass, which is fascinating,” Lawson said, adding he hopes the stained glass is able to find a home whatever the decision.
The building was renovated as an elementary school in the 1960s. Central offices moved to the main and second floors in the 1980s and the Youth Agency took the third floor.
“It’s a beautiful building,” said Lucy Wildrick, a resident who has been helping with the study and has a background in real estate development and consulting. “I’d personally love to see it saved in some fashion and used to benefit the town.”