Portsmouth leaves door open on Elmhurst chapel


PORTSMOUTH — The fate of the former Elmhurst School chapel will have to wait for now.

After hearing lively testimony from residents — some who want the chapel to be knocked down, others who hope to see it preserved for use as a performing arts center — the Town Council Tuesday night agreed to finalize a contract with J.R. Vinagro Corp to demolish the Elmhurst School at the low bid of $431,000. In doing so, however, the council left the door open for any changes to the contract should a viable plan for the use of the chapel and music room come forth within the next four months.

Council member David Gleason put the item on the agenda because he wanted a decision on the scope of the demolition job based on Vinagro's quote, which expires in June. (According to an estimate provided by Vinagro, keeping the chapel would save the town $78,040, said Finance Director David Faucher.)

More importantly, he said, the council needs to consider the "generous offer" from the nonprofit Aquidneck Land Trust (ALT) for $1.15 million in exchange for a perpetual conservation easement on the property. The council met once again in executive session with ALT Tuesday night discuss that proposal, although no action was taken.

Leading the effort to save the chapel is Andrew Kelly, a member of the School Committee who's in the process of setting up a nonprofit organization — the Elmhurst Chapel Preservation Association — to raise funds in hope of turning the chapel into a performing arts center.

“I’ve never stepped foot in this building until I got appointed to the Elmhust Planning Committee" three years ago, Mr. Kelly said in a recent interview. “As soon as I walked in here, I saw so much potential, and in doing more research I found similar projects had been done throughout New England.”

The town needs a large place for groups such as Portsmouth Community Theater, Newport Children's Theatre and various music organizations, he said.

"We have small venues in this town and on the island," said Mr. Kelly. "The Portsmouth Middle School theater is shaped like a snow cone and only has one wing, and the lighting isn’t that great. The high school is much better, but the height clearance is only 11 feet. So if you wanted to build a mega-set like they do at Roger Williams University, you couldn’t do it. In here you would have clearance to infinity.”

'No viable use'

Several others spoke in favor of keeping the chapel Tuesday night, but some people expressed doubts over Mr. Kelly's rosy prediction that a performing arts center would work at the location, and that it would cost only $100,000 to turn the chapel into a useable venue.

John Brady said he served on Glen Manor House Authority for 20 years and on Elmhurst Study Commission for three years. “During those three years we could never come up with a viable use for that facility," said Mr. Brady.

Several people also noted that the Portsmouth Arts and Cultural Committee spent four years looking for a town-owned building to locate a community arts center and turned down the Elmhurst chapel.

“Nobody’s banging on the door to use this place," resident Joseph Robicheau told the council. “I think it’s in our best interests to put it in the dumpster.”

Supporters of the Glen Manor House located on the south side of the property said they were concerned that any events at the chapel would compete with the Manor House, which turned a profit of $455,000 over the last two years.

The Manor House's resident manager, Katie Wilkinson, said it could cause confusion "if they're hosting events when we're hosting events." She also said tearing down the chapel and school would open the property up for outdoor weddings and corporate events held by the Manor House, which would bring in more money for the town.

Council member Michael Buddemeyer said the Glen Manor House is a proven money-maker for the town, while there are too many unknowns with plans for the chapel. "I'm still of the mindset that the whole building should come down," he said, adding that demolishing the chapel and school would add "curb appeal" to the property, which would help generate more in Manor House rental fees.

Council President James Seveney said there are too many buildings in disrepair in town that “are becoming millstones around the taxpayer’s head," and that he didn't want to see that happen at the Elmhurst property.

"I like the chapel," said Mr. Seveney said, adding he would like to see someone come up with a viable plan for the building. “We don’t have to do it all at once.”

He also pointed out that if the chapel is demolished, a storage building for the Manor House would need to be built at considerable expense. As part of Tuesday's vote, the town will also explore different options for a storage facility and put them out to bid.


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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.