Remembering the Senior Center
The Rehoboth Senior Center could not be saved from a devastating fire on September 12, but the building’s legacy will remain alive. The $1.4 million facility at 55 Bay State Road was deemed a total loss. Only the front portico remained standing.
The building’s genesis reaches back nearly 20 years, when the town’s elderly population saw the need for a bigger space to congregate. In June 2001, voters approved an override of Proposition 2 and a half to pay for the project. The override had been rejected in a special election held in October 2000. “The seniors were determined to come out and see this thing through,” then Selectman Arthur Tobin said after the votes were counted. “I am very happy for all the townspeople, but mostly for the seniors.”
Tobin, who later served as the chairman for the senior center building committee, said he was “heartbroken” when he saw what was left after the fire.
The groundbreaking ceremony for the 7200 square foot building took place in April 2002. The center opened in May 2003 but not without its share of controversy. The family of Gladys L. Hurrell had presented a petition to selectmen requesting that Hurrell’s name be transferred from the senior center at 320 Anawan Street to the new building. Hurrell, who died in 1994, served as an air warden during World War II, helping to operate the town’s air-raid warning system. She was also a founding member of the Rehoboth Fire Auxiliary and Women’s Acitivity Club. In 1974, she helped launch the council on aging. She later became a member of that organization and often served as a chairwoman.
Tobin did not believe the building should be named for one person. Selectman Skip Vadnais, who knew Hurrell personally, said she was “well-loved and well-known.” He added that it was “important that Gladys’ memory lives on” and felt strongly that she gets a “tribute that she deserves.”
Members of the building committee failed to reach a compromise with the Hurrell family, so the Board of Selectmen authorized two signs to be placed on the building, one with Hurrell’s name and the other which read Rehoboth Senior Center.
There was also anger over a video which aired on the local cable channel, which featured COA Director Janice Godfrey making disparaging comments about the interior of the building. Godfrey said certain rooms were too small. The footage was subsequently pulled from the air after the selectmen’s office received complaints. It was later re-aired after it was determined there was no libelous content.
The opening of the senior center was delayed when traces of uranium were discovered in the building’s water supply. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) gave permission to use bottled water at the facility for a six-month period. The DEP later authorized the use of water from the adjacent Anawan school well.
There were other mishaps as well. One memorable incident occurred when a volunteer for Meals on Wheels was trapped in the walk-in refrigerator when the door closed behind her. The woman screamed and banged on the door for several minutes until other volunteers came to her rescue.
The building was later hit with multiple handicapped-access violations. The front door was only able to open 28 inches instead of the 32 inches required to allow people in wheelchairs to have access to the building. Only two of the four entrances were handicapped-accessible.
There was a complaint lodged after someone crashed into a car in their wheelchair.
Tobin vowed to make sure the facility was in compliance with state regulations. “We fixed all the handicap access problems that the contractor left for us and if Janice Godfrey (had not been) playing with the controls of the front entrance doors there would not have been any problem with them,” Tobin said. “Everything did work out in the end when we corrected the mistakes of the contractor. The Building Committee was composed of knowledgeable and dedicated people who worked many hours to ensure that the Rehoboth seniors were well served.”
There were other problems.
Two abutters claimed the senior center’s septic system had been installed too close to their wells, which may have resulted in contamination of their drinking water supply. The wells were later tested by the Board of Health and the results showed no signs of contamination. Vadnais accused the engineering firm Reinhardt and Associates of inaccurately locating the septic system. Representatives of the firm denied negligence, stating they were working from plans provided by the town.
There were also reports of a possible gas leak in the building’s kitchen after volunteers claimed to smell a propane odor. Propane Plus came to the center to investigate and assured Godfrey there was no leak.
High electricity costs also plagued the facility. Executive Secretary David Marciello reported monthly expenses of close to $1200, a significantly higher figure than what the town paid for its other buildings. “It’s costing the town more than every other building combined,” Marciello noted. “This is just becoming a burden to us,” said Selectman John Ferreira, adding there was “so much work to do” on the building.
An energy audit conducted in 2009 declared the senior center the least efficient town building in all of Rehoboth. Electric solar panels were later installed on the building’s roof, along with heat recovery ventilators and hot water solar panels. Rehoboth was one of four Massachusetts towns that received a government grant to fund clean energy projects. As a result of the solar panels, the building’s heating costs were reduced significantly.
Through the years, there were other modifications made as well. “We just put a brand new furnace in (the building), and a new generator,” said Selectman Michael Costello. “We were trying to improve the place more. It’s just sad that this happened.”
The senior center suspended operations in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, selectmen continued to hold their weekly meetings in the building. The building had also been used as a polling location for many years.
A cause of the fire has not yet been determined. Vadnais said it would be two to three years before a new facility is constructed. “We’re going to move forward and we’re going to try to give (residents) a better senior center than they had before,” Costello added.