The Helen Day Art Center and Stowe Free Library, which share a building on Pond Street, are closed for the foreseeable future because a burst sprinkler soaked the building with water Monday morning.
At 5:15 a.m. Dec. 10, the Stowe Fire Department got a call from the building’s sprinkler system and thought it was for a fire.
Fire Chief Mark Sgantas and six firefighters rushed to the station and then to the library and art gallery.
“When we pulled in there, the alarm was going off but the panel read Sprinkler Activation,” Sgantas said.
“It was like it was raining inside. The water was just pouring down to the floor from the ceiling. Once we realized what was going on and didn’t see any smoke or fire, we ran down to the basement” and shut the water off, but by that time the water had run for 20 to 30 minutes throughout the building.
The sprinkler that burst was in the building’s attic, and water quickly penetrated the ceiling and soaked the second and main floor and basement, which is used by Stowe Free Library to store materials, including archived copies of the Stowe Reporter.
Stowe Public Works Director Harry Shepard explained the sprinkler system works by keeping pipes pressurized with about 100 pounds per square inch of air. A 90-degree bend in the system failed, and the air pressure in the pipes dropped enough to trigger the system.
By the time library director Cindy Weber arrived, 10 inches of water covered the basement floor, she said.
The Vermont League of Cities and Towns, which insures Stowe’s municipal assets, is assessing the damage to the building, but no estimates were available immediately on how extensive it is.
The elevator shaft also flooded, and wasn’t immediately accessible, said Stowe Public Works Director Harry Shepard, who will be overseeing the building reconstruction.
Stowe Free Library spent $30,000 to install new carpeting earlier this year, and recently got a new fire alarm system, too.
Town Manager Charles Safford said town officials will work to restore the building as quickly as possible.
“The important thing is, nobody was hurt. It’s a building. It’s an inconvenience, and there’s loss for sure, but it’s materials, things we can replace and put back together again,” he said, though he admitted “it will take some time to do so.”
“Nobody should go to the building,” he emphasized. “There’s nothing to help out with at this point.”
The library and art gallery building was insured at replacement cost with Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and library materials are insured at their depreciated value — in most cases, 40 percent of new cost.
Library and art center staff will stay away for now, and will remain on town payroll, Safford said.
He won’t know how the community can help until the insurance assessors decide how Vermont League of Cities and Towns will support the reconstruction, but asked people to stay away from the building, since it isn’t safe.
Safford said in the next couple of weeks, library materials will be accumulated in the Akeley Memorial Building’s meeting room, along with four public computers for people to use.
Sopping art gallery
The Helen Day Art Center has been hosting its annual Members’ Art Show since Nov. 30, featuring art by gallery members.
Executive director Rachel Moore says none of the art was damaged, fortunately, but the ceilings and walls will need to be reconstructed inside.
“There was gray insulation all over the floor” when she arrived, Moore said. “It sort of looked like wet newspaper pulp all over the floor, but it was the insulation, and it was all wet in the east gallery.”
The gallery ceiling was bowed from the weight of the water in the attic, and Moore and her staff spent the day removing the art and the trees that had decorated the gallery for its Festival of Trees and Light.
The art will be returned to its owners, and Helen Day Art Center will continue to market the members’ art for sale online, Moore said.
“That part is the most disheartening, to take this whole exhibition down, which I think so many people look forward to and love this time of year. We had a number of different school tours planned, so it’s hard,” she said.
Moore also had a lot of after school and holiday vacation programming planned for kids, and isn’t ready to cancel it yet, though she is looking for a new place to hold kids’ art classes.
By 3 p.m. Monday, Weber was taking a quiet moment for herself in one of the library’s reading areas, her forehead propped in her hand.
Her eyes were glossy with tears as she surveyed the damage with a reporter.
Weber says she’s spent the last year adding to the library’s 35,000-piece media collection, including books, audio recordings, video and magazines, and making the space more comfortable and accessible, and to see it so heavily damaged was upsetting.
The damage is primarily confined to the nonfiction section and the work station where library patrons check out books, although six of the library’s computers and its server are “waterlogged” and likely need to be replaced, Weber said.
She and her staff spent the day doing “book triage” — picking up soaked books and deciding which could be saved, and which should be replaced.
The archived Stowe Reporter newspapers were wet around the edges, but salvageable. Weber is putting them in cold storage for the time being to freeze them and prevent further water damage, and plans to work with a restoration company to be sure they’re in good shape.
For Weber, seeing her library’s precious books scattered on the floor, dripping wet, was an emotional gut punch.
“It took me a while for it all to sink in,” she said. At first, she was in crisis mode, but as the day wore on, she realized her library would be closed for at least several weeks, and the people who use it — 6,200 cardholders — will be shut out from the library’s extensive resources.
“It’s disheartening to us that we can’t be open,” Weber said. “I feel bad because I know this is a big community space. I just had to shoo some kids out of the back because they came over from the middle school. It’s a community place. People are going to be heartbroken. It breaks my heart too.
“I will get up and running as fast as we can because I know this is a valuable resource for people,” Weber said.
During the Stowe Select Board’s meeting Monday, Abby Earle, executive assistant to Safford, said she’d gotten questions about where people can go to use a public computer, and had sent them to Waterbury.
“At the very minimum, it’s going to be a few weeks” before people can use that facility, Shepard said, but the satellite library in the Akeley building should help.
“Don’t worry about returning your library books for a while,” Safford said.