June 17, 2011

A river runs through it

This summer, the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland begins a $100,000 project to fix its muddy basement.

JASON SINGER, Staff Writer

PORTLAND - When George Cleeve and Richard Tucker first settled this city in 1632, they built their home next to a "runnet of water" at the foot of Munjoy Hill.

click image to enlarge

Leonard Cummings talks about the latest stage of renovations at the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland. This summer, the basement will be excavated to pinpoint the source of a water rivulet so it can be diverted around the outside of the building.

Photos by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

The Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland will continue its restoration process this summer.

That runnet, which today is a tiny stream, now flows through the muddy basement of the Abyssinian Meeting House at 73-75 Newbury St.

This summer, the meetinghouse will begin a $100,000 project to fix the problem. The work will include an archaeological dig, followed by installation of a drainage system and concrete floor to make space for future programs.

It's the latest step in a 15-years-and-running project to restore America's third oldest black meetinghouse, which dates to 1832.

On a cold, rainy day this week, Leonard Cummings, chairman of the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian, gave a tour to four high school students and two Freedom Trail walkers.

Cummings, 76, pointed to the notches in the floor from the original 1830s pews, and a charred wall from a fire in the 1970s, as evidence of the building's incredible history.

"In the Fire of 1866, everything around it burned down," said Cummings, an African-American who wears his glasses low and speaks with a thick Maine accent. "Everything was destroyed except this. To this day, it still stands.

"One of the great untold stories in the city of Portland is this building right here."

The Abyssinian's restoration began in 1996 when his daughter, Deborah Cummings Kadraoui, learned about the building's forgotten history as a vibrant center for African-American culture and life in the 19th century.

She started the restoration committee, and set out to transform the Abyssinian from a bedraggled and abandoned property to its original glory.

In 1998, the committee bought the Abyssinian from the city for $250, the same price that the founders paid for the land in 1827. The city had seized the building in the early 1990s due to delinquent taxes.

Over the last five-and-a-half years, the committee has raised about $600,000 and done countless improvements. Its goal: To restore the Abyssinian to what it looked like in 1870.

This winter, the committee finished a $125,000 project to begin restoring the building's exterior.

Workers shored up the building's structure and installed new clapboards using the same methods the founders did in the 1830s.

At the top of the exterior, a new Palladian window, a replica from the building's 1870 facade, now looks out over Casco Bay.

"It's great all the recognition we've gotten from so many organizations," said David Paul, the committee's treasurer. "But each one's a new spyglass looking at us making sure we're doing it right.

"If we don't do it authentically, the building loses its historic value. So that adds to the cost."

The committee never starts a project until all the funding is in place. The changes must also be approved in advance by numerous historical organizations, Paul said.

It has already raised funds for 90 percent of this summer's project.

Over the years, the Abyssinian has received money from a variety of sources, including about $160,000 from the 1772 Foundation. Last year, it received $69,000 from the city's Community Development Block Grant program, $43,346 from the Maine Historical Preservation Society and $25,000 from the Davis Family Foundation.

A former high school student, Cara Fontaine, once ran a bake sale and gave the Abyssinian her $100 profit.

Recently she sent another $100 from Florida, where she's now attending college.

"I told her to bring some brochures to Florida with her," Paul joked. "I like that story, though. It shows it's a community project."

The building exudes history. The floors are original, as well as the darker beams in the ceiling's framework.

(Continued on page 2)

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