Sheila F. Barney-Pullus remembered playing inside the former Masonic Temple while her father played cards with the other masons on Saturday mornings when she was 4 years old.
Fifty-five years later, Ms. Barney-Pullus is working with Henderson artist Garrett L. McCarthy to save the crumbling historic landmark at 242 Washington St. On Thursday morning, she joined the developer in welcoming about 15 members of Advantage Watertown and city officials to tour what Mr. McCarthy hopes to convert into an educational and performing arts center.
“It's big, a lot of challenges,” said Advantage Watertown chairman John K. Bartow Jr.
Now in its 100th year, the building has sat vacant since the first floor was last occupied by a law firm about eight years ago.
“It's a magnificent space, isn't it?” commented Gary C. Beasley.
This summer, Mr. McCarthy has contacted colleges and universities to see if they might be interested in getting involved in the project. He recently met with Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor about that university's involvement. He also will soon talk with U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, about his plans.
He estimates it will cost about $2.5 million to refurbish the building, but then admitted it could balloon to $5 million to $6 million. Mr. Beasley said he could see the restoration project hit $8 million, but hopes to see Mr. McCarthy become successful.
Yet Mr. McCarthy insisted that most of the work will be on the structure's exterior, adding that the building is structurally sound. It only needs roof repairs, not a replacement, he said.
But every so often, a brick or more comes tumbling to the ground from the facade. For instance, a 20-foot-wide veneer face fell recently from the front of the building.
Some Advantage Watertown members seemed to be skeptical about Mr. McCarthy getting the project off the ground. Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham asked if Mr. McCarthy would be able to pay for the city taxes on the building that's due next year. He assured the mayor he would.
Advantage Watertown member John B. Johnson Jr., editor and co-publisher of the Watertown Daily Times, has been a longtime critic of the building's condition.
“They didn't know how to build exteriors, and they were Masons,” Mr. Johnson said.
The developer, who also serves as the director of the Henderson Historical Society, wants to have tenants lined up in December. He would know then if the project is a go, Mr. McCarthy said. Before that, the major project this fall will be repairing the drainage system to prevent further damage, he said.
During the walk though the building, the group got to see old photos and some artifacts left behind by the Masons. In the basement kitchen, dish ware and glasses are neatly stacked on shelves, with a handful of old-style metal coffee canisters sitting on top.
Mr. McCarthy also envisions turning the vacant parish house at Trinity Episcopal Church, 227 Sherman St., into an arts and educational center.