WILLIAMSTOWN -- At the Williamstown Community Preschool, the sounds of a hammer hitting a nail, a saw cutting wood will soon cease.
"Renovations are 90 -percent completed," Sue Hamblin , director of the WCP, said in a recent interview at the preschool, located at 777 Main St.
In the summer of 2012, the preschool invited local businesses to submit bids for transforming the historic First United Methodist Church in Williamstown into spaces that would fit their needs.
The preschool and the church have a long history of co-existing. Ever since the preschool was founded in 1972, they have shared space with the church in an addition to the side of the church.
According to Julia Munemo, president of the WCP's board of directors, the private non-profit association had a rental relationship with the church that worked well for both parties.
"When the church decided to merge with the North Adams congregation (in 2010)," Munemo said, "and exressed to us that it would mean selling the building, we began making plans to purchase it."
Hamblin recalled that the possibility of future owners having the building demolished or wanting to use the addition for their own purposes was unnerving: "Where we would go? What would the parents do? The preschool is valuable to the community."
After much deliberation, the preschool won a bid for Community Preservation Act funding from the town.
"It was exciting," Hambel said. "We had a long waiting list and had been wanting to expand but did not have the room. I never thought we would get the church."
It became the preschool's responsibility to bring the church building up to code as well as serve as stewards of the historical site.
"We cannot change anything on the outside of the building," Hambel said.
But inside, work began to make the newly acquired space safe, especially for children. First, some walls needed to be de-leaded.
"We appreciate that the church took care of that for us," Hambel said. One change coming, is a handicap accessible ramp on the Water Street entrance to the building.
The school has not yet installed the ramp, as the building permit application moves through town hall. If approved, installation will begin as soon as the ground thaws.
And the heating system was converted from electric to gas in order to reduce costs. The work was done by businesses based in North Adams - Marc Desanty Plumbing and Heating, Tower Electric, and Moresi and Associates.
On a tour of the building, Hambel explained that the former sanctuary would be used as a gymnasium for the children.
"We sold the pews to local people. Water Street Grill bought three to use in their dining area," she said.
A number of pews were still in the former sanctuary with names of buyers attached to them.
"We would love to open the (gymnasium) to the community on nights and weekends," said Munemo. "We have had some inquiries already and think there is considerable excitement in the community about a new venue for lectures, exercise classes, and performances. This is especially true as we continue our work on the stained glass windows. We have already installed lexan - generously donated by Sabic (Innovative Plastics) in Pittsfield - to protect the (interior of the windows) so that no stray balls can damage these wonderful windows."
In the spring. The yellowed plexi on the exterior of the windows will be replaced with ultra-clear lexan.
In a room that appeared to have been freshly painted, Hambel said, "This is going to be the Puffins classroom. It used to be the church choir room."
With the addition of that room for Puffins - children under two years of age - there will be a total of five classrooms in the preschool - a Bunnies' classroom for children age 2; a Pandas' classroom for children age 3; a Lambs' classroom for children age 4 and a Bears' classroom for children age 5.
"The children identify with their class names and aspire to being a Bear," Hamblin said.
What was the pastor's office is now a lounge for the staff, and the church secretary's office is now Hambel's office. On the bulletin boards outside Hambel's office, notices about church services and meetings have been replaced by Lambs ‘and Pandas' schedules and photos of smiling children.
A change in a Friday routine has given Hambel and other members of the staff reason to smile.
"Every Friday we had to clear everything out of the lunchroom because the church used it for coffee hour on Sundays," Hambel said. "The church was good to us, but it's nice to have the space to ourselves."
Puffins and Bunnies gathered in the lunchroom at 11:30 a.m. that morning as The Advocate visited the preschool. Teachers watched over the children as they sat at child-size tables with plates containing macaroni and cheese, a green vegetable and apple sauce before them. A bunny looked up at Hamblin with pleading eyes and said, "I want to eat my applesauce." Hamblin said reassuringly, "Go ahead, you can eat it now."
Three of the teachers in the lunchroom have worked at the preschool for more than 15 years. "It is rewarding to see children accomplish something they never did before," one said. A teacher who has been with the preschool for about a year chimed in, "It's challenging to take care of 2-year olds. They are very active and very curious about everything, but I like it."
There are eight to nine students in a class, and the school day runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
"We close for only four holidays," Hamblin said.
Tuition includes breakfast, lunch and a snack. There are subsidized slots for those who are eligible.
The Williamstown Community Preschool has much to celebrate, including the opening of the new classroom in February. Parents of the new Puffins who will learn shapes and colors while they are in that classroom, were very glad, Hamblin said, when they were told there was room in the preschool for their toddlers.
"Now other parents call to ask, ‘Where are we on the waiting list?'"