March 12, 2010

Original timbers uncovered at church


— By

Staff Writer

The surprises keep coming at the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland, where restoration workers recently found original timbers that will help return the 1828 building to its former glory.

The discovery is a high point in the $3 million restoration of the nation's third-oldest black church -- an effort that faces future funding challenges even as significant donations continue to roll in.

Workers trained in the ancient craft of timber framing found the original wooden beams earlier this month. They were dismantling and removing two floors and many interior walls that were added within the church sanctuary in the 1920s. That's when the meeting house at 75 Newbury St. was converted to an apartment building.

One of the later floors included nine 10-foot-long joists that appear to have been part of the church's choir loft. The discovery validates previous ideas about what the interior of the meeting house looked like 180 years ago.

''It's a bit like being a detective,'' said David Ford, a restoration timber framer who identified the joists. ''You try to connect the dots. Sometimes, you get lucky, and what you see agrees with what people think or remember. That's when the story becomes history.''

The joists will be used to rebuild the choir loft and, if necessary, provide dimensions to fabricate additional joists, Ford said.

The discovery of original materials -- in a building that has been so totally changed over the years -- is uncommon among timber-frame restoration project, said Arron Sturgis, the Abyssinian's contractor and owner of Preservation Timber Framing in Berwick.

''We didn't expect to find anything like this,'' Sturgis said. ''We thought the building had been gutted.''

The Abyssinian is the third-oldest church in the United States that was built by a black congregation, after meeting houses in Boston and Nantucket. One of few East End buildings to survive the Great Fire of 1866, the Abyssinian is on the National Register of Historic Places and part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

Its construction marked the start of the civil rights movement in Portland. In 1826, a group of black men decided to build their own meeting house because African-Americans were relegated to the rear benches and balconies of the city's established churches.

The Abyssinian also served as a center for abolitionist activity and a school for black children when Portland's other schools were segregated.

The structural restoration of the 35-by-50-foot Abyssinian was expected to be completed by the end of this month, but foul weather and delays in getting hard-to-find roof timbers have pushed the finish date to mid-February.

''The long lengths -- some more than 38 feet -- require a very large and beautifully straight tree,'' Sturgis said.

The Committee to Restore the Abyssinian hopes to complete the restoration and open a visitors' center by 2011. A $25,000 donation received earlier this month from the Davis Family Foundation of Falmouth will help to complete the $275,000 structural restoration.

However, an additional $300,000 is needed to replace the roof, restore the original two-door front entrance and 4-by-8-foot side windows, and install new siding that's historically correct.

The committee is applying for a variety of public and private grants to pay for those projects, but additional donations will be necessary to get the job done in the coming year, said Leonard Cummings Sr., chairman. A temporary roof is keeping it all dry for now.

When the exterior work is finished, the committee will focus on the Abyssinian's interior. Restoration workers have salvaged, marked and recorded piles of building materials from various decades, including hardwood flooring from the 1920s. Much of it will be reused to reduce costs and ensure the building reflects various eras.

''It may not be original, but it's part of the history of the building,'' Cummings said.

Some salvaged materials show how carpenters through the years reused lumber again and again. Subfloors were built in a patchwork of wooden scraps, with many pieces no longer than 18 inches. In the attic apartment, a toilet platform built in the 1940s included part of the exterior door frame from the house at 72 Newbury St. The wood still bears the number 72 in bronze.

''They were recycling here a long time ago, and we're continuing that tradition,'' Cummings said.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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