Albert J. Marro / Staff Photo
Paul Bruhn, left, of The Preservation Trust of Vermont signs an option to buy the Vermont Marble Museum in Proctor from owners Martin Hemms and his wife Marsha Hemms, not pictured, Tuesday morning.
PROCTOR — The white marble conference table held a stack of fading blueprints and several glass negatives – both a small part of the history of the Vermont Marble Company.
It’s a history that led to Tuesday’s agreement that supporters hope will save the Vermont Marble Museum and a collection of artifacts that chronicles the history of what was once the largest marble company in the world.
The option agreement gives The Preservation Trust of Vermont until the end of the year to raise $880,000 to acquire the 90,000-square-foot building, museum, archives and gift shop from owners Martin and Marsha Hemm.
Coinciding with the fundraising will be an effort to find a permanent nonprofit organization to assume ownership of the museum.
The Hemms found themselves in a financial bind last year when the museum and other commercial customers in town were hit with an unexpected spike in their electric bills.
That was enough to push the slightly profitable museum and gift shop over the financial edge. It forced the Hemms to publicly announce in April that the museum, which they had owned for 18 years, would close in the fall.
But closing the museum and auctioning off the history of one of the state’s major industries, one that also played a significant role in the state’s political history, is not what the Hemms wanted.
Sitting next to the Hemms around the white marble conference table in the museum’s offices, Paul Bruhn of The Preservation Trust of Vermont said it was an outcome that the Trust didn’t want to see come to pass either.
“That this is such an important part of Vermont’s history, that it would be very sad to see it sold off piece by piece and sent around the world,” said Bruhn, the Trust’s executive director.
The Trust made a $5,000 deposit on the museum, which came from its Historic Places Revolving Loan Fund.
For the Hemms, it was a day of mixed feelings.
Martin Hemm said the couple over the years had invested not only money but themselves into the museum.
“You put time into something and you get attached and you want to keep going,” Hemm said. “But there’s also a point in time … it’s much better to pass it on to somebody else and try to be helpful to make sure it evolves and continues and grows.”
Although the museum continued to manage a slight profit, Hemm said “every year was a battle” with increasing expenses.
Marsha Hemm said the spike in electric rates when the local utility was purchased last year by Central Vermont Public Service Corp. proved to be the “tipping point.” She said to continue would have placed the museum on a downward spiral.
Instead, Hemm said the Trust’s involvement bodes well for the museum’s future.
“I’m just tremendously excited to have people that are really in the historical arena be interested in it,” Hemm said. “And I feel the things that we haven’t been able to do, like the archiving … will finally be done, so it’s going to be so much better than what we’ve been able to do so far.”
With only five months remaining in the year, Bruhn said raising $880,000 will be a daunting challenge but one that can be accomplished through donations big and small.
“It is a great opportunity for us and for Vermont, “ Bruhn said, “and we hope people will value this as much we value it.”
In fact, Bruhn said the statewide fundraising effort hopes to raise a more than $1 million, including a $200,000 cushion to meet expenses after the change in ownership.
Bruhn said, if necessary, the Trust will become the intermediate owner but not the permanent owner.
“We would like to find an organization that would be interested and willing to take on the long term stewardship of this,” he said. “I think it has great potential. It is a great museum now but there are a lot of really wonderful opportunities.”
Bruhn said one suggestion is to broaden the scope of the museum and make it a geology center that tells the story of stone in Vermont, including slate and granite.
Emily Wadhams, director of the Preservation Trust’s Historic Places Revolving Fund, said the Vermont Marble Company had incredible reach around the world with much of its legacy still to be revealed.
“Not all the marble came from Vermont,” Wadhams said. “They owned quarries in Colorado, Tennessee, Alaska….”
Vermont marble was used in numerous government and private buildings, including the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier, the U.S.S Arizona Memorial, the U.S. Supreme Court Building and the White House interior. Overseas, the marble can be found in far flung places from Saudi Arabia to Taiwan, where the marble was used to build the National Chiang Kai-Chek Memorial Hall in Taipei.
While the museum has documented much of Vermont Marble Company history, much remains to be cataloged, Of the 2,000 glass negatives, 1,000 taken by the company’s in-house photographer still need to be catalogued.
“He actually archived the whole history of the company, the workers, the strikes, the buildings that were done, the monuments,” Marsha Hemm said.
Founded in 1880 by businessman and politician Redfield Proctor, the company at its peak employed 5,000 people worldwide.
Bruhn praised the Hemms for building upon the museum that was under the auspices of the Vermont Marble Company and later Omya Inc., the calcium carbonate company that bought Vermont Marble in 1976.
Over the years, the Hemms added exhibits on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, geology and Omya.
“It’s an amazing story about a company that was the largest marble company in the world at its peak,” Bruhn said.
More information about the fundraising effort can be found at www.ptvermont.org.
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