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From Problem to Opportunity: Adaptive Reuse Meets COVID-19

Patrick Tavern

This article was written by Linda S. Schwab, PhD, Village of Aurora Historian.

     It’s a common problem throughout New York State, especially in smaller communities: how to preserve an historic building while working with limited local resources. This was the problem faced by the Village of Aurora, on Cayuga Lake in Central NY, with its oldest building, Patrick Tavern.

     Patrick Tavern, built in 1793, is not only the oldest building in Aurora, but according to an informal poll of municipal historians, likely the oldest in the county. Repair and restoration of this building, purchased by the Village of Aurora about twenty-five years ago, languished for most of that time. The initial idea, rehabilitation to house the Village Office, was prohibitively expensive and over time grew less practical, with just a 28’x28’ building to meet modern needs. About five years ago, residents formed the Village of Aurora Historical Society and the Village signed an MOU with the Society for the latter to oversee Patrick Tavern. Oh and by the way, that meant raising some money to do it.

     That reframed the problem but did not solve it: as historical societies know all too well, small, fixed-exhibit museums constantly struggle to be self-supporting. A theme drawn from a public hearing was Aurora’s need for “community space,” so that became the starting point.  Meanwhile, the Historical Society had offered some “pop-up museum” events in Patrick Tavern over two summers. We saw that residents and visitors alike were fascinated by the exposed timber-framed interior with its wide boards and massive, hand-hewn beams, and its flexible, open plan suggested many possible uses.

     Limiting these uses to spring through fall seemed most likely to be sustainable. Now there needed to be a couple of “anchor” programs: ongoing uses that would also offer community benefit. I thought an extended-season farmers’ market would be a good one, and began to work on this concept with nearby Centurion Farm, run by two farmer veterans who are members of Farm Ops (a program of Cornell Small Farms).

     This idea became part of the narrative for a grant funded in January 2020. This grant would enable completing the nearly five-year building rehabilitation effort required to meet code. Now our planning got practical, with a group that included the veteran couple, a Village Trustee, a couple from the Historical Society who also had experience assisting with a CSA, and me. Together, we settled on the format of a pre-order/pick-up Tuesday market, to supplement the already popular traditional Saturday farmers’ market. The directors of the Saturday market helped refine this plan so that the two markets would complement one another in-season and join up in the mid-fall.

     And that brought us to the week in mid-March when everything changed. Suddenly, farmers’ markets took on a critical role in food security for New York State. What’s more, guidelines from the Department of Agriculture and Markets, which set out stringent procedures for traditional farmers’ markets, particularly encouraged the pre-order/pick-up model wherever possible. What started as a small part of a project for adaptive reuse abruptly shifted to a key element in Aurora’s COVID-19 response.

     Of course, the repairs to Patrick Tavern were slowed by the statewide “Pause,” but the simplified format of order/pick-up could go ahead with minimal change. Three more vendors joined the vegetable farm to provide baked goods, herbal products, and fair trade coffee, tea, and chocolate. So as I write in late June, this market is now approaching its seventh week, and, last week, included an impromptu plant swap in conjunction with the local garden club.

     There was a further surprise in store. I happened to call the Federation of Farmers Markets of NY recently with a question, and learned that this is something new: no other farmers’ market in NYS is using only the pre-order/pick-up format. It’s especially important here to have such a level of safety in access to fresh, local food: like a lot of rural villages, Aurora’s year-round population is predominantly (80%) over age 60.

     Of course, this is still a project-in-progress. The contractors are hard at work making up for lost time. Weather, like the cold week in early May, affects the availability of vegetables. The pre-order format means a little more planning from the would-be customer. But the advantages to customers are becoming obvious: ordering is easy, there’s almost no travel time, and delivery right to the car is an option.

     What’s ahead? As State guidelines allow, we hope to bring in more activities and offer wider public use for Patrick Tavern. When the season for outdoor markets concludes at the end of September, local farms and small businesses can continue indoors, through what is typically the most fruitful season for storage crops. The procedures both markets are following now have us well prepared for a recurrence of the virus.

     I’m sure there are many small communities wondering how to use important historic buildings, and this story might suggest some options that build on rural settings and keep on-going costs low. In the past, connections between villages and farms were a source of strength to both. In the future, adaptive reuse might also play a role in making our communities better able to meet unexpected challenges.

Linda S. Schwab, Ph.D.

Village of Aurora Historian

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Acknowledgments: The author thanks  the partners in this project: Jeff and Nina Saeli, Janet Murphy, Kay and Jim Burkett, Ellen Hall and Vic Muñoz (market team); Jeremy Kimball and team (contractors); officers, trustees, and members of the Village of Aurora Historical Society, and Village of Aurora Mayor Bonnie Bennett. Special thanks to the Cayuga Community Fund and the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation for very generous support.

Photo caption: Patrick Tavern, 1793; Tuesday Pre-Order/Pick-up Market under way in the parking lot at the rear, near the main (ADA-accessible) entrance