By Barbara Tetreault
SHELBURNE — Carl and Jen Lessard are facing long odds in their struggle to save a colorful piece of the region’s past.
Three years ago, the couple purchased what is now known as the Aston-Lessard barn and carriage house at foreclosure. Built in the 1880s as part of the “Wyndham Villa” estate on the Androscoggin River, the barn later served as a dance hall that attracted such Big Band era names as Louise Prima, Bob Crosby (brother of Bing), Jimmy Dorsey and Rosemary Clooney.
The Lessards moved into the carriage house, which had been converted into a home but the large two-level barn was in tough shape. Alterations made to the structure to convert the second floor to a dance hall had compromised the integrity of the building.
But the more the couple learned about its amazing history, the more they became determined to make every effort to save it.
“I don’t want to be the guy that tears it down,” said Carl Lessard.
Last fall, the couple succeeded in getting the barn listed on the N.H. Preservation Alliance’s “Seven to Save” list. The list highlights special properties across the state that are threatened in the hope that the attention will help efforts to save them. The release describes the properties selected as “the sort of places you can’t imagine your community without.”
An appraisal estimated it would cost $200,000 and that was before a 40-foot section of the roof collapsed last winter under the heavy snow load. Carl Lessard has put up tarps and taken steps to try and protect the barn from continued deterioration
“It’s a really tough case,” said Beverly Thomas, program director at the Preservation Alliance and manager of its Old House and Barn program.
She said an assessment of the barn, done through her organization, revealed the barn was salvageable but the cost would be expensive.
The roofing and framing were identified as major needs with the foundation and exterior sheathing also a concern. The barn measures 40 feet wide, 110 feet in length, and almost 40 feet in height. The exterior sheathing is finished with white cedar wood shingles. A 10-by-110-foot section was added onto the entire north eaves.
The main reason for the barn’s condition today can be traced back to the period between 1920-1940, when all the tie beams and posts were removed to create room for a dance floor. Removing a critical piece of the barn’s integrity led to sagging walls which endure the weight of the massive roof and created structural instability overall.
Thomas said she does not know of any funding source for privately owned barns. She said her organization hoped placing the barn on the 2016 “Seven to Save” list would create awareness of the barn and its unique history. The alliance also recommended Lessard create a Facebook and webpage about his effort to save the barn, which he has done.
“His heart is certainly in the right place,” Thomas said, adding that she admires Carl Lessard for his dedication to saving the barn and preserving its history.
And what a history it is — some of it shrouded in mystery and much of it fading as time goes on.
The barn was originally part of a large estate built in the 1880s by a wealthy New Yorker named William K. Aston.
In his book, “Summer Cottage in the White Mountains,” Bryant Tolles said “Wyndham Villa” was at one time “one of the White Mountain’s largest and most important summer vacation farm retreats” attracting attention for “the brilliance, uniqueness and sophistication of its architecture.”
Yet, Tolles said little in known about Aston, and the architect of the estate is not known. He said one newspaper source described Aston as a relative of the Vanderbilt family. Others, Tolles said, identify him as a German-American lawyer who traveled to Shelburne on business for a client named Aston. That version said he became Aston’s heir with the provision that he change his last name to Aston. With his substantial inheritance, he bought up land along the south side of the Androscoggin River in Shelburne.
Tolles’ research indicates the main villa was built in 1884-86 and his book describes it as a cedar shingled two-and-a-half story cottage with 12 principal rooms and a great view of the northern Presidentials. Along with the main house were a caretaker’s cottage, an immense horse barn, and a stable/carriage house. An icehouse, greenhouses, and other outbuildings also existed and the ground contained stone walls, pathways, stone animal figures and entrance gates.
Aston did not enjoy his luxury estate long before his fortunes changed and he sold off his much of his land holdings, starting in 1903.
In 1918, he sold the buildings to William Rogers Chapman of Bethel, Maine, according to Tolles. Chapman had dreams to create a regional music center and when that didn’t happen, he sold it to a Dr. Frank Gordon. Gordon tried to operate a silver fox farm, which Tolles said failed, leaving local investors out a considerable sum.
Sometime in the 1920s, Dominic and Rena Poretta purchased the estate. Dominic Poretta sold the main house to his brother, Leo, who converted it into the Shelburne Inn, added some cabins, and opened up a restaurant there as well. Leo Porette owned and operated the Shelburne Inn until it burned in 1960.
Dominic and Rena Poretta kept the barn and transformed the second floor into a dance hall and roller skating ring. Documents provided by Lessard report the hardwood floor was perfect for dancing and roller skating and the couple added a giant crystal ball and named the place, “The Shelburne Inn Dance Hall” although some reports indicate it was also known as the Shelburne Pavilion
It was the Big Band era and Dominic Poretta was successful in attracting some big name acts to include the Shelburne stop on their tours. Visitors from across New England as well as locals would drive out to the barn to see big-name acts like Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Glen Miller, and Harry James perform there.
Lessard said cars would be parked up and down the village road as well as on what is now Route 2. There was a little gazebo outside the barn where people would sit outdoors and enjoy the music.
“It was a big deal,” said Aldea D’Alfonso.
The Conway woman said her uncle helped manage the ballroom and roller ring for Poretta and got her father Carmen D’Alfonso a job there as well. Her parents would have their wedding reception there.
D’Alfonso said her father and uncle had great memories of their days at the Shelburne Dance. One of her father’s favorite stories was the jazz singer (and aunt of George Clooney) Rosemary Clooney asking him for a hand. Her father, D’Alfonso said, replied that he could give her two hands.
In a letter to Lessard, Doris Buotte said she met her future husband at the dance hall and they married within a year. The 1948 Berlin High graduate, said the couple was fortunate to see Louis Prima and Count Basie perform there.
“It was,” she said, “a place to go, meet old friends, and dance the evening away.”
Times change and the big band era died out. By 1955, D’Alfonso said the dance hall had closed.
Carl Lessard grew up in Berlin but moved to Connecticut after high school where he worked as an auto mechanic and also taught at Lincoln Technical Institute. He owned a small lighting company and did event lighting for several high school productions and various events. Lessard said he also worked as a lighting technician for several music festivals.
On a visit to his sister in Berlin, he met Jen and he moved back when the two married. In 2014, the pair purchased the Shelburne carriage house at a foreclosure auction and got the barn as well.
Carl Lessard said he started hearing stories of the dance hall and began studying its history. The more he learned, the more he became an advocate for saving the barn.
Sitting on what was the old stage, he said the place speaks to him.
“I sit here and I can hear the music playing and people dancing.”
While the odds seem stacked against him, Lessard said he is not ready to give up.
“This came to me for a reason. I have to try and save it,” he said.
Contact information for Lessard can be found at Aston-Lessard Barn on Facebook or astonlessardbarn@gmail. Written correspondence should be send to Carl Lessard, 991 State Route 2, Shelburne, 03581.