Fairbanks Museum breaks ground on $5M addition

Published: May. 4, 2022 at 5:13 PM EDT|Updated: May. 4, 2022 at 7:08 PM EDT
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ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. (WCAX) - It was a historic day for a historic museum in St. Johnsbury. The Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium broke ground Wednesday on a new annex project that aims to make the building more accessible to everyone, the first new addition in more than 120 years.

As the rain came down in St. Johnsbury Tuesday morning, the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium broke ground on their new addition. The rainy day was a perfect analogy for a project full of logistical challenges.

“It has never quite gone according to plan -- at no point. It has always taken longer and been harder but it has always worked out in the end,” said museum executive director Adam Kane.

The 6,000 square-foot Tang Science Annex has been in the works since 2016 but talked about for nearly two decades now. It’ll add new space for hands-on exhibits -- and most importantly -- accessibility.

Artist's rendering
Artist's rendering(Photo provided)

“When the Fairbanks opened its doors in 1891, accessibility was just not something that was contemplated, so in order to get to the balcony there are staircases, some spiral staircases, that are lovely but wildly inaccessible,” Kane said. He says the museum was long overdue for an upgrade. The last addition was in 1895. This one brings the museum into the modern age. “So, you get to have the Victorian cabinet of curiosities exhibits that people have always known juxtaposed with this dynamic space of hands-on activities.”

It adds not just the elevator but also more exhibit space upstairs, and a balcony. And down in the basement, a renovation will allow the Community College of Vermont to locate its St. Johnsbury site. The $5 million project is paid for by a combination of federal, state, and community funding.

“No one said it would be easy,” said Congressman Peter Welch, who was among those who fought for funding for the new space. He says it represents a kind of renaissance for the town. “What we have here is St. Johnsbury, returning to its roots of science, invention, and community. That’s really how I see it.”

MUSEUM PROJECT TO USE MASS TIMBER

The project will include the use of mass timber, a composite wood product that can be used as an alternative to concrete or steel. The museum even has an exhibit all about it right now to educate people about the product that some say will revolutionize buildings. It’s made of cross-laminated eastern hemlock from forests in Vermont and New Hampshire.

Officials at the groundbreaking talked about how construction like this can help reinvigorate the local forest economy and make construction more eco-friendly.

“Imagine institutions and eventually cities being built with this instead of with concrete. The savings are huge, the environmental benefits are huge. And this new market also results in sustainable forest management because it will reduce the forest fuels and the wildfire risk,” said the USDA’s Sarah Waring.

They’re hoping the new building will be a model for others to consider using mass timber technology.

The construction is expected to be finished by next spring.

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