by Nicholas Hecht
The deal is done. The train has left the station, and there’s no turning back. But it’s been a long and winding journey.
The story of how an abandoned train station has helped resurrect the old Pyralisk Arts Center started with an eviction notice. A neighbor had been kind enough to lend me her beautiful old barn for my set design work for several years. One day, she told me she needed the space, and my set pieces had to find a new home. What was worse, I had promised to deliver the set for Mozart’s opera, Cosi Fan Tutte, in a matter of weeks and now had no place to do the work!
In need of a new space ASAP, and a major opera set hanging in the balance, I noticed the charming old train station in Middlesex looking abandoned under layers of dust, trash, and rubble. I inquired with the town and the historical society about the space and got the go ahead. With my big white theater truck I moved in umpteen loads of sets and artwork and after sweeping out the whole place three times and hauling loads to the dump, I was soon hard at work on the Cosi Fan Tutte set. All was well. My tools, lighting, my piano, are all battery powered. What a great place! With the help of volunteers we mowed the lawns, planted flowers, and started landscaping.
Then, a few months later, the folks at the lumberyard next door informed me that not only did they own the building (not the land), but that they were going to bulldoze it in a matter of days. For a minute or two I considered their request to vacate and allow the building’s demolition. But, during my conversations with the fine people of Middlesex, I had learned that the community wanted the train station to be saved. Also, the thought of finding another studio and moving a dozen truckloads of theater and art pieces, just as winter was setting in, seemed impossible.
I decided to stand my ground.
I realized that while I needed this place, the owners didn’t even want it. Since I had adopted the property, The Bridge had featured it in article, it was used for a scene in a French documentary, an opera set was in progress, and friends had set up a phone tree to bring a crowd to block the bulldozer if it came.
The standoff continued for a year and a half. Finally I realized I had to talk to the people who actually owned the land, the Canadian National Railway. That quest led me to the eighth floor of their offices in Montreal. There I met the excellent and interesting director of Canadian National properties, Jean Halle, and had a most enjoyable hour talking trains, art, and travel. I told him about being a teenage hobo riding some of his lines and much later traveling across the country on freight trains with some French friends who were filmmakers making a documentary The American Hobo.
Eventually he told me the railroad was planning to sell the entire property, which included, it turns out, another building that is just big enough to house a small theater and workshop. He said he thought I should have it. He offered me a very reasonable price, (he really did want me to have this property!), and when I came back to Montpelier, I was able to raise the down payment. The lumberyard had already promised to sell me the actual train station building for one dollar, so I was now on my way to owning a derelict train station in Middlesex, Vermont.
I then went to the Secretary of State’s office and started up the old Pyralisk 501c3, which had become (not having an actual location) a kind of foundation that had gone into a deep sleep. Now it is awake again. Always evolving, it is consistent in always being open to the wondrous and beautiful possibilities of art, music, dance, theater, and film—never about profit, never generic, and never bureaucratic.
With spring, we launch the next phase of creating a world-class production and performance facility, a cooperative art gallery, and a sculpture garden. There’s talk of a rail stop for the new All Earth Rail and a place for the Middlesex Historical Society.
All are welcome to join us on this adventure, starting with a clean-up and landscaping day on May 6, from 11 am to 3 pm. Carpentry and gardening assistance is particularly valuable, and it goes without saying that all donations are tremendously appreciated.
Please send donations to The Pyralisk Art Center, P.O. Box 693, Montpelier, 05601.