Meeting House Restoration Project
At a meeting of concerned citizens who met to discuss the restoration of the Meeting House, it was decided to restore the building as an historic artifact, and not make any modern-day improvements beyond those required by law or reason. An Architecture & Restoration Committee was formed and placed in charge of the actual work. We immediately realized that this extraordinary effort could not be accomplished by volunteers alone. Skilled specialists in the area of historic building restoration were needed.
A study was funded to assess where repairs were needed and determine the costs and, in March of 2006, a Historic Structure Report was prepared. This report detailed the architectural and building history and provided information on the repairs needed for the Center Meeting House. In addition, James L. Garvin, the State’s Architectural Historian, wrote an appraisal of the building at this time in which he notes that this building is well worth saving, as it represented a major artifact of our State.
During this time, it was learned that the Meeting House was in desperate need of a new foundation due to settling: since it made no sense to repair any other part of the building without a solid foundation, this would be the first project as well as the first of a number of structural surprises that we had as we tackled this restoration. Construction documents were then drawn up, and a contractor was located to lift the building and install a new foundation. By November, this project (referred to as Phase 1 in our plan) was complete.
Work began on the exterior of the building and the roof structure. The engineer investigated the existing roof structure and the obvious sagging problem. The guiding principle throughout this process was to keep as much of the original structure as possible, and to repair instead of replace. A special emphasis was placed on saving the horizontal 42-foot beams in the roof structure, since they appear to be from the original Meeting House that was built on Bly Hill in 1791.
As is common with renovating any building of substantial age, the biggest unknowns (and most costly problems) are often hidden from easy inspection behind the walls. The only way to determine the price of this effort was to remove the interior plaster and supporting lath. Because the existing plaster was a twentieth-century replacement of the original and of poor quality, the plaster was removed in October, 2007. In addition, the stairs to the attic and belfry were repaired.
Once the plaster was removed, the poor condition of the structure finally became clear. Based on this inspection, several weeks were spent discussing how much of the existing structure could be saved. The condition of the three main trusses was so bad, we reluctantly agreed they needed to be entirely replaced.
Once these decisions were made, a temporary reduction in scope was agreed to (based on funds presently available) and a new contract was signed in February 2008 for a guaranteed maximum price of $537,712. This contract would include replacing the three mid-structure roof trusses along with the south-end supporting posts, replacing the roof deck, installing asphalt shingles, restoring or replacing all windows (except the 1902 lower sash), replacing eight lower sashes with accurate reproductions to match the upper sashes, repairing window trim, removing clapboards on the south side using a lead abatement contractor, installing new radial sawn clapboards on the south side along with the west side gable above the pavilion and the lower tower, and removing the upper tower (belfry) for detailed inspection.
Replacement of the trusses and the removal of the bell tower provided some entertaining and exciting viewing. We also discovered that much of the older construction and design of the building was highly innovative; even the engineers marveled at what had been accomplished 175 years ago without modern construction equipment. Much of the renovation work has been performed with great attention to detail. For example, the notched purlins (horizontal structures that support the loads from the roof) were dropped into place without a single hammer or nail. This portion of the work was completed in July 2008.
While the crane was available and the workers were there, the Board decided to remove the bell tower to ground level, where a more complete analysis of its condition could be made. This was decided in spite of the fact that there were no funds available at that time to accomplish any of the work that would be required. It wasn’t until later in 2009 that the board was able to decide to proceed with the restoration and replacement of the tower.
Early in the year, scaffolding was added around the tower for dismantling, restoration and disposal of the old paint. In addition, work continue throughout the year on the restoration of windows and other portions of the building. Electrical work was also involved.
In December, the bell tower was reset atop the Center Meeting House. The seam where the new tower intersects with the rest of the structure is being closed and weatherproofed.
The end of 2009 saw a building that was square and level and a roof that was no longer sagging. The new windows restored the Meeting House to a more accurate eighteenth-century look. The top panes were restored and the bottom panes were renewed as the old 4×3 pane arrangement was not historically correct.
In the prior three phases, the emphasis has been on structural issues such as the foundation, roof trusses, and rebuilding the tower. The focus of this year, phase IV, was on aesthetics and cosmetics.
The building exterior has been the subject of a multipronged approach. First a lead paint abatement crew removed unusable clapboards and scraped lead paint from the trim and the usable clapboards. Next the carpenters came in and installed new clapboards of the type originally used and repaired the trim where needed. The last step consisted of putting coats of new paint on everything.
The north wall clapboards were all replaced because many had been removed for making repairs and others were in bad shape. The intent was to keep as many of clapboards on the west end or front as possible, but so many were beyond repair, they had to be replaced. It is fortunate that the east end receives so little weathering. That has allowed many of the original clapboards with feathered joints to exist today. All of the clapboards, except for four or five rows at the bottom, were carefully scraped and repainted. The bottom rows had been replaced because of the sill repairs. The south wall was replaced in phase II.
The building interior has seen two main projects. The first was to install new plaster on all interior walls and coat with primer and two coats of paint. The other was to clean and restore the paint and shellac on the wooden parts of the interior. A paint conservator was hired to study the existing paint to understand its history and make recommendations regarding its restoration. The basic recommendation was to carefully clean all surfaces and touch up damaged places as needed. A very talented restoration painter was found and hired to carry out this painstaking work.
A great deal of work has been put into landscaping and site design. The goal has been to minimize distracting elements around the exterior of the building while providing access from all directions. The fence has been repositioned to give a more open and welcoming presence. A path has been constructed from the town office parking lot to the front for handicapped access as well as for the ambulatory public. Another path has been constructed from the Rt. 103A parking lot to the sidewalk. Lastly there is a path from the sidewalk to the building. Flood lights have been installed to show the building in all its glory in the evening. As part of the electrical work, ten circuits were run underground to the fir tree for Christmas lights.
As much of the restoration effort was completed, 2011 involved only minor interior work. A restoration painter spent weeks meticulously cleaning the original paint and touching up any flaws that he encountered.
The highlight of this year was a ceremony on June 18, where the Center Meeting House was re-dedicated during a wonderful day and evening of celebration that included both state and local officials and a presentation of the 2011 Preservation Achievement Award, given by the NH Preservation Alliance for the quality of work, the project’s innovation, the degree of accomplishment and the level of community support. State Senator Bob Odell was on hand to congratulate the people of Newbury for this extraordinary accomplishment and read a Commendation from John H. Lynch, the Governor of New Hampshire.
In this photo, Dan Wolf, second from the right, Chairman of the Board of Directors, leads the Board in the first official ringing of the Meeting House’s renovated bell. Dan is joined by (from left) Bill Weiler, head of the Architectural and Restoration Committee; Linda Plunket, Board member; Claire Vannatta, Treasurer; Barbara Steward, head of the Membership Committee; Joy Nowell, Board member; Chuck Kennedy, Vice Chairman; Dan and Senator Bob Odell.
The Center Meeting House also served the community with a Thanksgiving celebration on November 20, when Sarah Josepha Hale and President Abraham Lincoln visited the Center Meeting House to tell of the campaign by Mrs. Hale to have the fourth thursday in November declared a national holiday. After the presentation, bountiful goodies and hot cider were served, followed by Mrs. Hale and President Lincoln ringing the Center Meeting House bell (which was donated by John Hay, then secretary to Mr. Lincoln).
In December, Alice’s Tree was lit for the first time to honor Alice Lynn, a long time Newbury resident and one of the original Meeting House trustees.