Land Trust's home has historic past

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Ye olde Belknap School has never looked better.

That’s the assessment many people offered Saturday of the 125-year-old building which was officially dedicated Saturday as the permanent home of the Johnston Land Trust.

During a brief yet impressive ceremony headed by Mayor Joseph Polisena, there were countless oohs and aahs from an attentive audience numbering around 60 Johnstonians who learned that their town is the only community in Rhode Island to have its own land trust building.

“Today, as we are in this truly historic building, this I believe is a historic day for our great town,” Polisena began after asking what people thought about the restructured facility that met with applause. “We have a land trust that has its own building!”

Polisena, who has enjoyed many milestones during his tenure as mayor, then paused before adding – with a smile on his face: “So, with great pride and joy today we gather here to see another milestone in our fabulous town!”

The Mayor cited some of Johnston’s extraordinary additions like the one-time new Marian J. Mohr Library that won architectural awards, transforming the former library into the Johnston Municipal Courthouse, state of the art athletic facility at Johnston High School, the indoor recreation center and of course the Citizens Bank mega-campus off Greenville Road.

The story behind the restoration of the Belknap School is as interesting as the building’s legacy that ran from 1893 to 1940 and was restored again in 2010 before its current and unmatched upgrade in 2018 is unique.

For starters, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places and now features many new items like church pews that have replaced wooden, lift-top desks featuring ink wells.

Sometime in 2017, Polisena had a visit from Johnston Historical society officials Lou McGowan and Dan Brown who asked if he’d be willing to take the Belknap School back in town custody.

Polisena, who is known for his innovative ways of finding a use for a number of buildings in town, said “yes” to the generous offer and immediately began thinking how the town could make good use of the structure and how the residents could benefit from such a historic structure.

The Mayor then approached his team – Johnston Town Councilman Richard DelFino, David Santilli, Robert Russo and Robert Civetti who all concurred and said “let’s get it done – now!”

Polisena then met with Judy Kawa, chair of the Johnston Land Trust, and asked if here members would be interested and she immediately said “yes.”

The Mayor then offered: “You see, ladies and gentlemen, we have one of the most active land struts that is constantly meeting and always looking for property to preserve for future generations.”

Moreover, he emphasized that the Johnston Land Trust has had some major success from purchases to Citizens Bank donating land to preserve our open space for future generations to enjoy.

Polisena told attendees that the Land Trust building would make an excellent meeting place for local Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts as well as an educational tool for our children to learn about the history of the town.

Kawa concurred and the takeover was in place.

As expected, there were some issues with the old but beautiful building and that’s when Polisena put the town’s talented building officials Ben Nacenzi and DPW Director Arnie Vecchione to work.

“We also got a response from the corporate world and union trades to help make this day happen,” Polisena said amid more applause. “Citizens Bank took care of the handicap ramp and railings … Joe Brooks from Excell Construction also came on board and provided valuable assistance.”

The Mayor praised Mike Knipper, Executive Vice President/Head of Property at Citizens Bank and Joe Caparco, a Johnston resident and RI Trades Union official for their “extraordinary efforts.”

Likewise, Polisena also thanked members of the Johnston Historical Society for their hard work and dedication and generosity in donating the building back to the town.

Much of the post-ceremony talk centered on the seating, as shiny church pews have replaced those old-time wooden lift-top desks that featured ink wells and padded seats.

There’s an interesting story behind the church pews, as Nacenzi and town officials had to travel to the Bronx, N.Y. and bring them back to Johnston.

Perhaps the only treasures from yesteryear, as someone pointed out, left inside the Belknap School are the blackboards and still colorful yet somewhat faded maps used in one-time geography classes.

The original wooden floor in the one-room school house is another work of art and features a high-gloss shine created from three coats of polyurethane applied by Nacenzi, DPW Director Arnie Vecchione – who Polisena praised for his tile work in the bathroom -- and other staffers.

“As you can see, we have not only brought his building to life, but we have kept the historical flavor,” said Polisena as he called upon Kawa for her remarks.

Kawa, who was all smiles, quickly responded: “”We are very excited about finally having a home. We hope to be very successful in the years to come.”

Before closing, Polisena emphasized: “This is going to be great; I want the public to use this building; it’s yours … this belongs to the taxpayers of Johnston.”

Rev. Chris Abhuline, pastor at neighboring King’s Tabernacle Church, delivered the opening prayer that read, in part: “Awesome God! We are so glad and grateful fort h renaissance of this piece of history. All saints who came before us and served and schooled in this place stand in awe as we reopen this house. For over a century and a quarter, this house has endured harsh winters and hot summers. Today this house transitions from a schoolhouse to a meting place. But it will always be a source of eternal lesson to all who look upon it.” 

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