BF mulls historic urinals
By HOWARD WEISS-TISMAN
BELLOWS FALLS -- Among the clogs that officials need to flush out before the town goes ahead with plans for the new $3 million Intermodal Center is deciding what to do with three historic urinals in the men's bathroom at the existing train station.
At a public meeting held earlier this week, project manager Susan McMahon told the crowd that the early-20th century bathroom fixtures may or may not fit in with the final proposal for the new transportation center planned for the Connecticut River island. Amtrak and the Green Mountain Railroad use the 1922 train station. Planners hope to turn it into a centralized facility serving bus, taxi, rail, as well as bicycle and pedestrian traffic.
Approximately $1.5 million in federal funding is earmarked for the first phase of the project. But before accepting the money, section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires a careful accounting of all parts of the historic property.
McMahon and other project planners discovered what they had while cataloging the train station. Although the bathrooms are not considered in the federal regulations, McMahon said the group is concerned about preserving the urinals because, "we think it is the right thing to do."
They don't, in other words, want to throw the baby out with the bath water.
At the meeting on Monday, McMahon said that if they can not keep the historic pieces they might donate them to the American Sanitary Plumbing Museum in Worcester, Mass. The museum immortalizes man's eternal quest to clean up after himself and includes everything from a 17th century wooden pipe from Boston to a futuristic waterless toilet.
"The development of sanitary plumbing technology over the last 200 years," one Web site boasted, "is spread out before the visitor over two floors."
This is serious stuff.
Paula Sagerman, a historic preservation consultant is working with the town on the renovations. Sagerman did her master's thesis at the University of Pennsylvania on 19th century bathroom fixtures.
"They are actually pretty rare," Sagerman said about the Bellows Falls stalls. "Not a lot of people involved with historic preservation appreciate plumbing fixtures and they end up at the dump."
Bathrooms, Sagerman said, are in many ways the final frontier of historic preservation. Even with the increasing interest in preserving the past, groups often overlook the bathrooms when working on projects.
"When I call historic museums or homes they are often using the bathrooms as storage closets," she said.
And while Sagerman makes her living observing and appreciating New England's architectural heritage, she had trouble assessing the true value and worth of the train station's preserved privy.
"I have just not seen a whole lot of them," she admitted.
But saving these public treasures goes beyond merely historic preservation, said Joe U. Rinator, founder of Urinal.net, a Web site devoted to an appreciation of the stalwart standards of mens rooms around the world.
The Web site has been up for four years and Rinator said they receive up to 13,000 hits each day, which he estimates accounts for approximately 3,000 to 4,000 people.
Over 5,000 separate photos appear on the site. One of them shows the Bellows Falls bathroom.
Rinator said the urinals in the southern Vermont train station harken back to a time when craftsmanship and individuality had a place in manufacturing.
"Those full height floor models are becoming extinct. It reminds us how they don't make things like they used to," said Rinator.
Calling from his office in San Francisco he pulled the Bellows Falls photo up on his site and admired the handiwork.
"I would like to see them stay," he said. "I think it is a worthwhile goal."
The train station renovation project is still in the very early stages and officials are trying to move slowly before they plunge into anything rash.
Ellen Howard, Rockingham zoning and planning administrator, said the latest plans do not include keeping the urinals.
"We are trying to keep the original ticket booths and waiting room, but we may have to renovate the men's and ladies bathrooms," Howard said. "We may not be able to keep the historic urinals."
No decisions have been made, and Howard said the project planners will work to retain as much of the original station's flavor as possible. They may be able to move the urinals, but the cost could be prohibitive. We should be able to count on the planners to do the right thing. But don't hold your....
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