By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — For four years, the historic Whittier Building on Winter Street sat vacant, surrounded by overgrown grass.
The YMCA injected life into the building in 2011, taking it over and renovating the first floor for use as a early childhood education center.
Now, the YMCA wants to spread that life to the second floor of the building where local poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier attended school in the early 1800s. The organization is raising money to renovate the second floor to add additional rooms for its growing early education program, while maintaining the historic facade of the building.
“We hope to begin renovations this summer and have them completed by September,” said YMCA Director Tracy Fuller.
She said the YMCA hopes to raise $100,000 for the renovations between now and a planned opening in the fall.
“We already have a few major donors, including Haverhill Bank, and we’re looking to raise another $50,000 or more,” Fuller said. “We’ve sent out donation requests and our capital campaign is led by King Davis (the well-known former owner of a real estate firm). There’s also an opportunity for people to buy bricks, which will become part of a walking and biking path around the Whittier Building.”
The 6,000-square-foot Whittier Building at 87 Winter St. is next to the YMCA. The building is considered one of the city’s signature properties. Besides its role in the poet Whittier’s education, the building was also the city’s first high school.
In June 2011, the YMCA announced it was renovating the first floor of the old brick building to create its Children’s Learning Center, a preschool program that opened that fall. The building had been empty since the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce moved out in 2008.
The building came back to life when the YMCA opened the children’s center. Fuller said it cost about $175,000 to renovate the first floor, including installing a sprinkler system for the entire building.
“We started with about 25 children and we now have over 50 children enrolled in the program and a waiting list, which is why we want to expand,” Fuller said. “We also want to have full use of the building.”
Prior to opening the center, the YMCA operated an early education center in Groveland, which served about 30 children, more than half from Haverhill.
“We opened the program knowing there was a need for affordable, early education in Haverhill,” Fuller said. “One of the additional bonuses to the Whittier Building location was the close proximity to the YMCA and its many programs.”
The Children’s Learning Center currently has four classrooms and bathrooms for staff and children. Fuller said renovations to the second floor will add one large classroom, two bathrooms, a kitchen, an elevator for handicap access and a community recreation room that can be used for a variety of purposes. She said the new classroom will allow for an additional 20 children.
The program currently serves children 15 months to 5 years old. With the addition of another classroom, the program can serve more than 70 students, Fuller said.
“We serve snacks right now, but with a kitchen we’ll be able to serve lunch and do more cooking projects with the children,” she said.
Anyone interested in donating to the project can contact Fuller at 978-374-0506 or firstname.lastname@example.org.