PUTNEY — For nearly 175 years, locals at this town’s central white-clapboard church gave thanks to a higher power. Now its current tenant, the Next Stage Arts Project, is grateful for something else: a $370,000 national grant.
The nonprofit organization, founded in 2010, is one of 55 recipients to win an ArtPlace America award to support an $860,000 capital campaign for physical improvements.
Local churchgoers built the Greek revival meetinghouse — on the National Register of Historic Places — in 1841, adding its present pews in 1893, electric lights in 1915 and refurbished steeple in 1991.
After the congregation disbanded in 2009 due to declining attendance, a budget deficit and dwindling endowment, the Putney Historical Society took ownership of the building, which has gone on to host performance arts, speakers and films.
Next Stage was one of nearly 1,300 applicants seeking money from ArtPlace America, a collaboration of national and regional foundations, banks and federal agencies working to advance “creative placemaking, in which art and culture play an explicit and central role in shaping communities’ social, physical and economic futures.”
The first $320,000 of the award will help pay for building improvements, set to include restoration of the building’s historic façade, roof and ceiling, installation of an elevator and other upgrades.
The remaining $50,000 will support entertainment and educational programming.
“We aren’t just a performing arts center,” executive director Maria Basescu says, “we really see ourselves as combining historic preservation with community development.”
The building has a long history of such service. The late, legendary Vermont governor and U.S. senator George Aiken was the church’s most famous member. His family is believed to have joined the congregation upon its federation in 1919, and his funeral took place there on Thanksgiving 1984.
But Aiken isn’t the only alumnus with a spirited story, historical society files attest. His first wife, Beatrice, was president of the church’s Women’s Association for three years before sending a letter of resignation in 1957, saying the group, rather than simply sending gifts to schools and hospitals, should engage in “real sacrificial acts of kindness toward our fellow-beings across the tracks.”
Putney’s latest hometown newsmaker, Gov. Peter Shumlin, has good words for the building’s latest incarnation.
“In just three short years, Next Stage Arts Project has been instrumental in reinvigorating the cultural and economic life in Putney, as well as other communities in southern Vermont,” Shumlin said in a statement. “The project embodies the kind of creative collaboration and resourcefulness we are striving to encourage.”
,” Basescu says. “It will be a whole different experience for artists and audiences.”
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