By Julie Huss
---- — DERRY — It served as a school for many years and is now a gathering place for groups and residents.
The Marion Gerrish Community Center turns 40 this year. It has become a central spot, hosting dozens of groups and special events over the years.
Last week, the center opened its doors to the public and special guests for an anniversary celebration.
Originally the West Side School built in the 1860s, the building has seen many renovations through the years.
In 1972, a group of citizens petitioned the town to lease the building and create a community center.
Parks and Recreation staff members worked to remodel the dilapidated building, known to many as the “pigeon hotel,” and make it a viable center.
Fundraisers, special events and craft fairs helped finance the renovations.
“It was awful,” said Janet Conroy, a member of the center’s Board of Directors. “There were no bathrooms and you had to go up the hill to the Adams Building to use the bathroom. It was a lot of work, one room at a time.”
Rooms were expanded and the center’s thrift shop found a new home in the building’s lower level. Donations and volunteer support came from businesses, local organizations and individuals.
The center now operates independently under the watchful eye of a board of directors and receives no town funding.
“It looks a lot different than when we started,” Conroy said.
The thrift shop adds financial support to the center’s upkeep.
MaryAnn Lombardo has been at the center since the beginning. She keeps watch over the thrift shop. She said the building has come a long way and is now considered a focal point of the community.
“I’m proud of what they’ve accomplished,” Lombardo said.
Nearly 150 groups and organizations now call the center home including Derry Rotary Club, Meals on Wheels, Derry Community Fund, Derry Village Rotary Club, sports groups, singing groups and church organizations.
The space can be rented for private events.
Conroy said the building’s success is due to many hands and much support.
“The old schoolhouse became a true community center because the community of Derry believed in it,” she said.