BURLINGTON, Vermont — An imposing Italianate-style building that looms over part of Vermont’s largest city had such a troubled past that plans to redevelop it called for some mysticism.
Dee Bright Star, an Abenaki woman who initially opposed the project, was brought in to conduct a spiritual cleansing.
“I just talked with them and asked them to go,” Bright Star said of her conversations with the spirits she found there. “They were very good and understanding.”
The 55,000-square-foot orphanage building, now called Liberty House, has been converted into 64 apartments and one condo. Elsewhere on the 32 acres, which have spectacular views of Lake Champlain and New York’s Adirondacks beyond, construction is underway on what will become a total of 770 housing units, for elderly and low-income Vermonters but also including higher-end rental units and condos.
There will also be 150,000 square feet of retail and business space. Twelve acres are being turned into a public park that will guarantee everyone access to the city’s lakefront bike path. And there are high hopes that the project, scheduled for completion in 2025, will help ease a chronic housing shortage in the college town of 42,000 that has driven up the cost of living.
Hopes are also high that the property can finally purge its demons.
The original St. Joseph’s Orphanage building was constructed by the Catholic Church in the 1880s. For generations, it served as an orphanage or temporary home for children whose parents could not care for them.
The orphanage closed in the early 1970s, and parts of the building were used as offices for the Diocese of Burlington, which covers the entire state. In the late 2000s, the church began looking for a buyer because it needed the money to help settle sex abuse lawsuits.
Last summer, BuzzFeed News published a story about allegations of physical, mental and sexual abuse and even killings of children that occurred at the orphanage. The story prompted the Vermont attorney general, other law enforcement authorities and the church itself to reexamine the abuse alleged to have occurred there. The investigations continue.
In 2010, the building was sold to Burlington College, at the time run by Jane O’Meara Sanders, the wife of Bernie Sanders, the independent U.S. senator and 2016 and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. She worked out a $10 million deal for the college to buy the building and surrounding land.
Jane Sanders promised the deal would be paid for with increases in enrollment and about $2.7 million in donations. But her plans never materialized, and she left the college in 2011.
The school closed in 2016, citing debt from the land deal as a major reason for its failure. Prompted by complaints filed by a Republican lawyer, federal investigators probed the land deal. It was only last November that a representative for Jane Sanders said she was informed that no charges would be filed.
The church declined to comment on the redevelopment of the property. Jane Sanders did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Peter Chojnowski is one of the building’s original tenants, having arrived in July 2017, when the apartments were first opened.
“The whole thing has taken a turn for the better, how this building is going to be utilized,” Chojnowski said. “The bad things that went on here with the diocese are going to keep creeping back up; it’s not going to go away, but the rest of it is a good thing.”
Eric Farrell, a longtime Burlington developer, had his eye on the property for years and bought part of it before the college closed. The final plans for the entire project, known as Cambrian Rise, were approved by city officials in early 2017.
He notes that while some orphanage residents were alleged to have suffered there, it also provided a valuable social service. His job, he said, is to look forward.
“I’m in the real estate development business, so of course I want to make a profit in compensation for the risks that we take, but you don’t do this kind of work for the money; that’s not what gets you up in the morning,” Farrell said. “What gets you up in the morning, the juice for this, really, is creating a community that people enjoy living in and enjoy working in.”
Farrell was the one who, after Bright Star spoke against the plans — saying the development would destroy a once-spectacular, relatively undeveloped section of Burlington — asked her to cleanse the building.
Mayor Miro Weinberger is less mystical but acknowledges the building’s history and potential. The project and others across the city, he said, have already started to help alleviate the housing shortage.
Vacancy rates, while still too low, are starting to rise, and rental rates are stabilizing, he said.
“That site has been the scene of a couple pretty dark chapters in Burlington history,” he said. “What is emerging now is much more hopeful. There is going to be a new, vibrant diverse community there that that will be entirely different.”