BETHLEHEM — On Thursday, more than three years after a fire destroyed the operations center of The Rocks Estate, and after much planning, design and fund-raising in the time that followed, ground broke on what will be the new headquarters of The Rocks and of all Forest Society operations in northern New Hampshire.

Called Forest Society North, the $8.5 million renovation will transform the 1884 Carriage Barn into a new program, education and event center that is projected to be ready for occupancy by mid-2023, after a 12- to 14-month construction period.

Greeting the 60-some people attending, which included the construction and engineering team, Forest Society trustees and representatives, elected officials and representatives for the town of Bethlehem, was Jack Savage, president of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.

“We are realizing what a momentous day this is,” said Savage, who thanked the many supporters, friends and donors. “We’ve been hard at work for a number of years getting to this point. We are also mindful that we are at a beginning point and not an endpoint.”

After the accidental fire in February 2019 that destroyed the Tool Building, which for decades had been The Rocks’ operations center, an ad hoc committee was assembled and much community outreach done to determine which direction SPNHF should take and if there was any value in rebuilding on the estate and expanding, said Savage.

The consensus was clear — stay and rebuild.

“All of this added up to ‘yes,’ we need and want to reinvest in The Rocks as an essential part of the Forest Society’s vision for the future,” he said.

Soon, SPNHF settled on the location.

“We looked around this landscape,” said Savage. “Everybody’s eyes were drawn to this building here.”

The renovated Carriage Barn will feature a gift shop, lobby, welcome center, atrium and exhibit space, meeting room, large classroom, space for events, and a covered pavilion, as well as restrooms that can be accessed by those visiting The Rocks and hiking its trails after the main building is closed.

While the exterior of the Carriage Barn will retain its character, the inside of the building will be state-of-the-art and net-zero and feature geothermal as well as a solar array that Savage said can power the entire campus.

The classroom will be named after Jane A. Difley, retired SPNHF president/forester who attended Thursday’s celebration.

Already complete across the road is a new terraced amphitheater, which looks out onto the Presidential Range and was fashioned out of the foundation of the Tool Building.

To date, $4.5 million, including $300,000 in New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority tax credits, has been raised toward the total $8.5 million project.

Included in the total amount is a $2 million endowment fund for maintenance.

“We’re over halfway,” said Savage. “Fair enough, you might ask. But how can you have shovels and a pile of dirt already if you still have $4 million to go? This is something I learned from Jane years ago — sometimes, you have to have a little faith.”

As SPNHF spoke with community members and donors, they found that the demand was there, he said.

“[We] have a lot of faith that we will be successful in creating this,” said Savage. “We’re going to start now. It’s been waiting over three years. We need to get going. We need to have the business operations here going again, we need to have weddings here again, we need to have people coming and learning about the forests of New Hampshire, we need to have our classrooms full, and so we’re proceeding with strong faith that at the end of the day we will have $8.5 million.”

District 1 Executive Councilor Joe Kenney thanked Savage, called the Forest Society an “amazing organization,” and said that such a project at The Rocks doesn’t happen without leadership.

“Why do we love the North Country, why do we love these types of projects?” said Kenney. “It’s because we know that we’re leaving a legacy for the next generation and we’re going to be a part of that legacy and we get to shape it, the future here in the North Country. And having the Forest Society North is going to be a great contribution.”

Savage said the town of Bethlehem has been supportive.

“We are very appreciative that you decided to keep it here,” said Bethlehem Board of Selectmen Chairman Bruce Caplain. “It attracts a lot of tourists, a lot of visitors. Taking it to the next step is what you guys are doing, which is fantastic.”

Savage thanked Nigel Manley, general manager of The Rocks Estate, and his team for carrying on the estate’s Christmas tree tradition and selling Christmas trees for the past few years without any indoor heat.

He thanked the SPNHF trustees, the ad hoc committee members, and Will Abbott, who, nearing retirement, stayed on with the Forest Society after the fire to become project manager for The Rocks Estate.

With emotion, committee member Nancy Martland, of Sugar Hill, said she can’t believe the day is here and the renovations are about to begin.

Savage, too, thanked Anne Truslow, SPNHF vice-president for development.

“She’s been an instrumental part, not just in raising the funds, but in developing the vision,” he said.

The building crew is Samyn d’Elia Architects, of Holderness, and Milestone Construction, of Concord. Leigh Starer, of Franconia, is the landscape architect.

With the work beginning, SPNHF is eyeing the north-of-the-Notch future.

A recent SPNHF acquisition is, to date, the largest in its history — the conservation of 3,700 acres near Shelburne, an acquisition SPNHF might have been too shy to take on had it been solely based in Concord, said Savage.

In Bethlehem, SPNHF acquired the 1,400-acre Rocks Estate through a donation in 1978 from the Glessner family.

Today, it is a popular attraction for walking, Christmas trees, and education programs and is a tourism destination welcoming 14,000 visitors annually.

“In everything we plan to do at The Rocks, we are seeking to pay tribute to what was here and adapt it to the future,” said Savage.

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