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From Orcas, to Lopez, with love – New owner Jeremy Snapp promises to keep Benson Hall’s original look

(Color) On a cold clear morning last Thursday, Benson Hall, a fixture of Orcas Island life for more than 70 years, sailed toward its new home on Lopez Island. (Top) Nickels Bros. House Moving Ltd. successfully delivers Benson Hall to the barge that took the building to Lopez Island. (Middle) Father Craig West leads islanders in a service remembering Benson Hall. At right is Jim Newland. (Bottom) Lopez islander Jeremy Snapp promises to keep the building as close as possible to its original look. - Joanne Simmons (color photo) and Ted Grossman (B&W photos)
(Color) On a cold clear morning last Thursday, Benson Hall, a fixture of Orcas Island life for more than 70 years, sailed toward its new home on Lopez Island. (Top) Nickels Bros. House Moving Ltd. successfully delivers Benson Hall to the barge that took the building to Lopez Island. (Middle) Father Craig West leads islanders in a service remembering Benson Hall. At right is Jim Newland. (Bottom) Lopez islander Jeremy Snapp promises to keep the building as close as possible to its original look.
— image credit: Joanne Simmons (color photo) and Ted Grossman (B&W photos)

An important piece in the history of Orcas Island was transported to Lopez Island Valentine’s Day morning.

About 200 islanders braved freezing cold weather on the Emmanuel Episcopal Church grounds a little after 6 a.m. to watch Benson Hall transported by professional building movers to a barge that took it to its new home. The early morning move was required because it was when the tides would allow the barge to come right up to the Eastsound shore. Those watching the event marveled as Nickel Bros. personnel, of Victoria, B.C. worked at a fast pace to get the building on board the barge before the tides receded to unacceptable levels. When the building successfully made it to the barge, viewers erupted in a round of applause.

It would be another 24 hours before the barge trip to nearby Lopez could be completed, again because of the tides.

The man orchestrating the move was Lopezian Jeremy Snapp, a history buff, photographer and author who has dedicated his life to restoring old boats and homes. During the course of his career Snapp has restored about a dozen buildings in Lopez and Anacortes. Snapp has written or edited three books: on sail, steam and motor boats; early cod fishing schooners, and the Panama Canal.

A 25-year resident of Lopez, Snapp was aware that the old Benson Hall was was about to be replaced with a new building, and that those undertaking the project were hoping somebody would offer to take the old structure and restore it. Several parties on Orcas Island expressed interest, and as recently as about six weeks ago there remained the possibility that Benson Hall would remain on the island where it was constructed.

But those deals fell through, and that’s when Snapp entered the picture. Not only did he have a desire to restore another historic old building, Snapp owns property in Lopez Village, behind the market, that could accommodate such a structure. He also believes there’s a demand in Lopez Village for additional office and retail space.

But Snapp’s desire to preserve this piece of history was central to his willingness to take on the project. Snapp knows that it may have cost him less money to build a new structure from scratch. Not only did he have to pay the very substantial moving costs, Snapp will also have to meet building codes that are far more stringent than what they were in 1930. Fortunately, some of them were recently addressed by the church.

Snapp plans to keep the Benson name for his new undertaking, which he’ll call the Benson Building. He also plans to do a lot of the restoration work himself. He says, “I want to keep the look as close to the original as possible,” he says. Snapp hopes that the building will be ready for occupancy on Lopez by fall.

The building’s rich history

The Eastsound building currently known as “Benson Hall” was constructed on Main Street in 1930.

Various businesses occupied Benson Hall before it was taken over by the church. It has been a general store, laundry, electrical shop, arts and crafts shop. It was even a residence for a short time.

In 1945, when the building became home to Orcas Island’s first electrical store and service shop, “Sunny Shore Electric,” then newlyweds Ellen and Buyral Madan rented the store’s two back rooms as living quarters. Ellen ran the general store shop while Buyral helped owner Carl Weber with electrical jobs around the island. The Madans’ son Rich Madan still recalls sleeping there as a young boy.

Templin’s Store (precursor of Island Market) rented the building in 1951 and 1952 before moving to the site currently occupied by Ray’s Pharmacy.

The Episcopal Church acquired the building in 1979 and named it in honor of Father Glion Benson, who served the San Juans from 1956 to 1968. Since then, Benson Hall has been home for Alcoholics Anonymous and grief counseling meetings, Sunday school classes, church offices, and social gatherings.

Parishioners’ love for Benson Hall was celebrated at a special service led by Father Craig West in front of the church Feb. 13 at noon. Islander Jim Newland remembered Benson Hall in a letter which West read.

It stated, “Buildings have no souls. Buildings are boards, mortar, stone and plaster; no heart, no brain. Buildings hold memories for the persons that have used them over the years. This humble building has served the Orcas community for many years under many names. Most will remember her as Benson Hall, and it has done its best to offer shelter and comfort to those in need. Organizations large and small, Sunday schools and various groups have laughed, cried, and struggled within her walls. What memories echo between these timbers.”

Work on new ‘Hall’ has begun

Work on the new structure has already started.

Orcas Excavators has begun building a retaining wall.

Plans call for completing construction in time for the start of the Christmas season, according to contractor Ron Malzon of White Blackbird Construction.

— Ted Grossman is editor of islandssounder.com and The Islands’ Sounder. He can be reached at (360) 376-4500 or email.

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