BETHLEHEM — The Bethlehem Planning Board has approved the site plan for the major renovation advancing at The Rocks Estate.
On Jan. 13, town planners gave the green light to the plan to transform the stone barn known as the Carriage Barn, thereby setting up the total renovation effort for a possible late 2022 completion.
The project, remaking The Rocks into “Forest Society North,” comes after the February 2019 fire that destroyed the Tool Barn, which had been the center of Rocks Estate operations for decades.
Detailing the project for the site plan review was Amelia Brock, of the Holderness-based Samyn-D’Elia Architects, who said the Tool Barn served as the northern education center, and the Carriage Barn, the aesthetic stone face of which will be kept intact, will serve as the same.
The project includes expanding the parking area to 100 spaces that will better accommodate retail Christmas tree operations and educational events, as well as having in the barn expanded public restrooms, two classrooms, exhibit and open gallery space, and an open pavilion at the west end for hikers, picnickers and groups gathering at the beginning and end of events.
On Wednesday, Jack Savage, SPNHF president; Anne Truslow, SPNHF vice-president for development who is advancing the project fund-raising; and Nigel Manley, Rocks Estate general manager were on-site to survey the barn and grounds for the work ahead and to highlight the complete four-season vision going forward.
The loss of the Tool Barn opened up sweeping White Mountains vistas to the north and east.
“The one silver lining is it opened up the view and we plan to accentuate that view,” said Savage. “This is a moment in time when we have an opportunity.”
And the Carriage Barn itself called out for a “reinventing,” one that can help the Forest Society enhance its presence and mission in the North Country, he said.
This summer, landscaping done by Leigh Starer, of Franconia, took place to fill in the foundation of the former Tool Building.
“As we reinvent, we want to make this area more of an open green space,” said Savage.
The original two-story Carriage Barn was built in 1884, with an addition in 1907, and a cow barn addition made several decades later.
The cow barn, which makes up about a third of the total barn space, is in poor condition and will be coming down, said Truslow.
The classroom that will be built on the eastern side of the barn will be called the Jane A. Difley Classroom, in honor of Savage’s predecessor, former SPNHF President Jane Difley.
“People will enter the building from the south side,” said Truslow.
The redesign of the Carriage Barn will encompass about 8,000 square feet and will include an open lobby at the west end that goes up two stories as well as a gift shop, welcome center, classrooms, second-floor office space for staff, and space for SPNHF employees coming up from downstate to lodge overnight.
“We want to make it more integrated,” Savage said of the overall barn plan.
As for staff, more people will be needed to accomplish Forest Society goals in northern New Hampshire, he said.
‘Especially post-COVID, our staff will no longer think of themselves as based out of Concord,” said Savage.
The reinvented Rocks Estate will have a solar array behind the barn (unseen during the summer months) to provide renewable energy, and the Carriage Barn will be heated by geothermal, all to get closer to net-zero energy emissions, he said.
Featured, too, as they have been, but with an added emphasis, will be picnic areas, trails for hiking, the maple museum and the late winter-early spring maple experience, numerous educational opportunities, the Christmas tree farm, a play area for children, and more.
“We are thinking of this whole area as a forest exploration area,” said Savage. “This is first and foremost a place for the public to go repeatedly.”
And in making The Rocks an even greater destination, the vision is to have a charger for those driving there with electric vehicles and to have ample charging stations for cell phones and devices, he said.
The estate, once owned by John Jacob Glessner, a co-founder of the Illinois-based International Harvester Co., was a place where some early experiments and innovations with farming were done, and it featured several summer cottages, all of which can be reinterpreted for current and future generations, said Truslow.
“There really is something for everyone,” she said.
The plan is also to continue Forest Society relationships with local businesses and to develop an app to direct visitors to other SPNHF destinations outside of The Rocks and nearby, said Truslow.
After the fire, The Rocks decided to relocate the farm-specific headquarters and to separate the equipment, tractors and tools that had been housed in the Tool Barn and move them all to the location of the red house, at Route 302 and Interstate 93, and away from the public.
Last year, a new two-bay heated garage and workshop was built at the red house that provides a heated workspace for Manley and the Rocks crew.
And this spring, the longstanding building visible from Route 302 that once housed the North Country Council and other organizations is expected to be taken down, after many years of being in poor shape, said Savage.
Will Abbot, the former SPHNF vice-present of policy and reservation stewardship, officially retired in May but has agreed to remain in a part-time capacity to oversee The Rocks building project.
The nonprofit SPNHF received the 1,400-acre Rocks Estate in 1978 as a donation from the Glessner family, which had owned the property for a century.
About half of the total fund-raising to remake The Rocks is in hand.
The total $7.5 to $8 million project - the largest-ever Forest Society capital project in its 120-year history - entails a $5.5 million total renovation and a $2 million endowment, the latter to provide the money to run the expanded Rocks Estate operation.
“We need $1.5 million by the spring of 2021 to stay in our time frame,” said Truslow. “If we are in a good place in the spring, we’ll start this project in the fall.”
If funding goes well and sticks to the timeline, the Carriage Barn’s renovation could be complete for the 2022 Christmas tree season.
“This will provide a launching pad for more work up north and we’re really excited about it,” said Savage.