by Nat Frothingham
After years and years of creating art and storing his paintings, sculpture and theater sets in some pretty funky locations across Central Vermont — in the past few months artist Nicholas Hecht has good reason to believe he’s finally found a near-perfect studio and storage location.
And that studio and storage location? An abandoned railway building along Route 2 across the road from the Red Hen Bakery in Middlesex Village.
Over the years, Hecht who has pursued his art in a number of different locations across Central Vermont was actively looking for a new studio and storage space when he discovered the abandoned railway station building in Middlesex Village.
After weeks and weeks of carefully talking to the right people — including the Middlesex Town Clerk, a couple of key people from the Middlesex Historical Society and a neighboring property owner, things looked pretty squared away.
But suddenly during the past 30 days, Hecht has found out that he’s in danger of losing the old railroad building he thought he had secured.
Hecht has an artist’s and builder’s appreciation for historic railroad buildings like the one that survives in Middlesex Village — one of the hundreds of such buildings with their easily recognizable overhanging, extended eaves that shelter passengers from rain or snow while they are waiting to board a train.
“They built these stations pretty much all over the world,” Hecht said, “in South America, Russia, Asia, Africa — little small-town train stations.
Then came the motor car and big oil,” Hecht said. “They bought them up and closed them down. They tore them out everywhere.”
In a recent visit to The Bridge office a few days ago, Hecht began by talking about his love of music.
“I play a lot of keyboard — clarinet,” he said to begin with. “I travelled all over Europe and China, the Caribbean, playing the clarinet on the Great, in Guadeloupe, at a jazz place in Montreal.”
Warming to this theme, he continued, “I have owned several pump organs, a piano.” He also plays the guitar and a chromatic harmonica. But, right now, it’s the accordion that’s his current main squeeze. “On the accordion, overwhelmingly, I play my own compositions. I compose with it,” he said.
Music is just one of his Hecht’s many favored art forms. He’s also a painter, a theater and opera set designer and a sculptor.
Hecht’s also been a local arts organizer and impresario. Back in the 1980s, Hecht invented and was the primal source behind The Pyralisk — a laid-back, popular hang-out and performing space on the first floor of the historic French block building in Montpelier — behind City Hall and the Fire Station.
But as anyone who follows the arts knows all too well — good things often flare up for a time only to burn out. And after several years when the Pyralisk closed, nothing like it came along to take its place in Montpelier — nothing as casual, or as relaxed or as welcoming.
But back to the abandoned railway building in Middlesex Village. “I’m attracted to old buildings,” said Hecht as he ticked off a list of some of the places he has used in the past to make and store his art.
“I had the Sculpture Building at Goddard. I had a couple of big studios in Barre, one on Keith Street at the old Mattheson School. I had the whole Salt Shed (along what is now Stonecutters Way in Montpelier) for several years. The last place I had was a barn in East Bethel, a beautiful location. But no heat, no light, no water. I can do without these things,” he said. But the woman who was letting him use the space wanted the barn back. So that ended.
Then Hecht discovered the old railway building in Middlesex Village and everything seemed to be coming together quickly and solidly.
Hecht had seen the building. He had talked with the Middlesex Town Clerk who was someone he knew.
“She liked the idea,” said Hecht. She thought it was better to have a building in active use than just abandoned. She suggested that Hecht check with the Middlesex Historical Society and Patty Wiley of the Society said, “Great.” And Sarah Seidman, also with the Society, said, “Great.”
And they came to a decision and said, “Change the locks — use it.”
That’s exactly what Hecht did. He changed the locks, swept out the place three times and moved seven trucks full of his stage sets into the old building. “I use and re-use these sets,” he explained. “I also moved in a vast collection of my paintings and a big chunk of my large paintings.”
Just when Hecht was beginning to feel a little solid ground under his feet, he was told by a lumber company that owns an adjoining property that they own the railroad building, though not the land under it. The lumber company pays a lease to the railroad and the railroad owns the land under it.
Then Hecht learned something pretty ominous from the local manager of a nearby lumber outlet chain — that bulldozers would be demolishing the old railway station in 30 days or less.
Hecht immediately contacted the Canadian Railway officials in Montreal. He found the Canadian Railway personnel he talked with both accommodating and helpful and they wanted to set up a three-way meeting between themselves, Hecht and a representative of the lumber outlet. The aim, they said, was to resolve any problems with Hecht’s use of the building.
According to Hecht, the officials were also saying, “We might be able to work something out.” But they had safety concerns because the abandoned building is close to the railway tracks. But when Hecht suggested building a fence between the building and the tracks, they liked that idea.
That’s how things stand at the moment. Things are up in the air. There’s been talk of demolition. There’s been no closure yet.
Summing up the current moment, Hecht said, “About a week and half ago, I sent them photographs and a letter. The photos showed me inside the building with my art work — giant sets and all. And I sent them a letter telling them who I am and what I do exactly. They’re aware now that I have a lot of support.”
Talking personally, Hecht said, “I’ve got to a point in my life, where I need a heated studio and a place to build stuff. I’m in the midst of a serious moment of creative activity. I’m writing music. I’m working on a series of paintings. I really need this space. I don’t have the money for some expensive commercial space.”
As he talked about the railway building in Middlesex Village — Hecht was in the middle, neither optimistic nor gloomy about his prospects.
“I think I’m good here. I’m fixing up the place. I’m protecting the place. People are stopping by, right and left, wanting to save the building, glad the building is in use and in support of what I’m doing.”