Exterior of the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland, photographed on Thursday, February 27, 2020. The original floor of the meeting house is being restored and is the latest effort by the Abyssinian Restoration Project, which began 20 years ago to save the meeting house and to call attention to its importance in Maine’s history. Staff photo by Gregory Rec Buy this Photo

The floor of the Abyssinian Meeting House has been battered and bruised since the timber-frame building was raised in Portland’s historic East End neighborhood nearly 200 years ago.

Members of the city’s first African-American congregation stepped to their pews and fidgeted through fiery sermons. Crowds gathered to hear moving speeches by well-known abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison. And black children studied reading, writing and arithmetic before Portland’s schools were integrated.

After the church closed in 1917 – a tragic result of the worst maritime disaster in New England history – it was converted into several low-budget apartments. Pews were ripped out, two additional floors and many walls were added, plumbing and heating ducts were installed, and decades of tenants continued the wear and tear on the wide pine planks.

Two house fires did more damage, leaving charred and weakened timbers behind.

Now, the original floor of the historic meetinghouse is being restored. It’s the latest effort by the Abyssinian Restoration Project to save and call attention to a critical and long-neglected aspect of state, local and national history.

“The history that the floor reveals is amazing,” said Leonard Cummings Sr., a leader of the group that’s restoring the Abyssinian. “It’s a part of black history in Maine that has been omitted for a long time and it’s finally being told.”

With surgical precision, skilled carpenters are removing damaged sections of the 36-by-50-foot floor and replacing them with new pine boards. Smaller holes and gaps are also being filled with carefully fitted plugs or patches known as dutchmen. All of it is being done according to strict federal standards for historic preservation and restoration.

The resulting patchwork of light- and dark-colored wood has a random beauty that perhaps only preservation advocates or a restoration contractor could love.

Les Fossel owns Restoration Resources, which specializes in historic restoration projects and is working at restoring the floor of the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland. Most of the 200-year-old floor boards will remain; workers are only replacing boards that are structurally unsound or create a safety concern. Staff photo by Gregory Rec Buy this Photo

“If you look closely at a building, you’ll know exactly what the builders were thinking,” said Les Fossel, owner of Restoration Resources, the Alna-based company that’s restoring the floor.

The project is an important step toward making the Abyssinian a community center once again.

“This isn’t (meant to be) a museum,” Fossel said. “It’s a living part of the community. The idea is to create a floor that people can walk on safely. So we’re fixing everything someone might trip over.”

In past years, floors and walls added during the 20th century have been removed. The building’s remarkable timber-frame structure was repaired and restored, along with its stone foundation. The once-sacred space now soars two stories above the original floor, making it easier to imagine the people who built and used the meetinghouse.

Built in 1828, the Abyssinian is the nation’s third-oldest meetinghouse built by a black congregation, after churches in Boston and Nantucket. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and recognized as a northern hub of the Underground Railroad and the anti-slavery movement.

In 1826, six free black men – Reuben Ruby, Caleb Jonson, Clemant Tomson, Job Wentworth, Christopher Manuel and John Sigs – published a letter in a local newspaper, announcing their plan to build a church for Portland’s black community. They no longer wanted to be relegated to the back pews of Portland’s white congregations.

Mike Drage lifts a new pine floor board after checking its fit in the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland on Thursday. Staff photo by Gregory Rec Buy this Photo

“Pardon our misapprehensions, if they be such,” the men wrote, “(but) we have sometimes thought our attendance was not desired.”

The Abyssinian thrived through the 1800s as the religious and cultural heart of Portland’s black community. Church membership took a serious blow in 1898, when the SS Portland was caught in a terrible storm and sank during a return trip from Boston.

At least 194 people died when the steamship went down, including 19 crew members who attended the Abyssinian. Two of them were church trustees. The congregation never recovered and eventually closed.

City officials sold the boarded-up, tax-delinquent property to the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian in 1998 for $250. Since then, the nonprofit group has worked to stabilize, study and restore the building through grants and donations.

Mike Drage works at replacing floor boards in the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland on Thursday, February 27, 2020. Staff photo by Gregory Rec Buy this Photo

Cummings said the floor restoration is part of a $75,000 project that includes two circular stairways that are being built in the entryway of the church by Thomas Thomsen, a local restoration contractor. Like the original stairways, they will serve two doorways that eventually will be restored in the building’s facade.

The next major project will be the installation of eight new, 28-paned windows like the originals that stretched over two stories. They’ll cost about $125,000 and will be installed as funding is available, Cummings said.

With each improvement, the Abyssinian moves closer to becoming the community hub that it once was.

When the floor restoration project wraps up in a week or so, the boards will be washed and treated with a forgiving oil finish. Eventually, Fossel said, the pale new wood will turn honey-colored and blend with the original boards. Visitors to the meetinghouse won’t even notice the restoration work unless they look for it.

Michael Drage, one of Fossel’s employees, doesn’t mind that his careful work will someday be ignored. On his hands and knees, the carpenter from Dresden is cutting out damaged wood and carefully patching the gaps. As he mends the warped, cracked and dinged boards, his mind wanders back through the centuries.

“I think about the people who made these marks,” Drage said, pointing out deep grooves in an old plank. “I’m just putting in a floor, but this is an important place for a lot of people.”

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