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Garden Club invests $40K in repairs to Union Church, weighs future of ownerless building

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The 182-year-old Union Church on Harpswell Neck boasts more than $40,000 of recent repairs, including a new roof, thanks to the stewardship of the Harpswell Garden Club. But the historic structure has no owner, and Garden Club members say the club may not always be able to fund its upkeep.
This year’s projects include repairs to the ceiling and walls at a cost of $21,785 and re-shingling the roof for $14,500. With smaller expenses, such as $1,986 for rodent control and $500 to repair a signpost, the maintenance bill comes to $40,915.
“We have enough money to pay for the renovations right now,” said Anne Taft, club member and property manager for the church, but members have concerns about the club’s ability to maintain the building long term.
Garden Club President Tuckie Westfall said this year has been particularly expensive because the building needed “some serious capital investment.” Annual maintenance costs $3,000 to $4,000, she said.
Members have differing views on whether the club should continue to care for the church.
“The building has a lot of sentimental value for the Garden Club,” Westfall said, adding that it plans to form a committee to review the matter. “If we’re going to keep it, we have to have an endowment.”
Westfall is optimistic about the club’s ability to cover future costs through fundraising
“I think the public at large, if they know what the situation is, they may be willing to support it — certainly those with an interest in history,” she said.
Some members would like to see another local organization take over the building’s care, but a successor would need to have both interest and resources.
The church’s muddy legal status complicates the issue. The Garden Club doesn’t own the building, and its research has not revealed another owner.
In 1979 and again in 2017, the club hired attorneys to identify the owner of the property. The attorneys couldn’t turn up a deed or identify an owner.
They told the Garden Club it might be able to gain a “quiet title” based on the legal theory of “adverse possession,” according to club documents. Adverse possession generally requires that the person or group seeking ownership has been openly and continuously using the property without permission from the owner.
But the legal process would be expensive and provide minimal benefit, the lawyers told the Garden Club. It would, however, allow it to seek grants for the property.

A plaque on the pulpit gives the year of the construction and dedication of the Union Church on Harpswell Neck. (J.W. Oliver photo)

Steps lead up to the pulpit at the Union Church. A newspaper clipping from around 1980 describes the structure as “solid mahogany with the base painted to simulate black onyx.” (J.W. Oliver photo)

The club rents out the building for the occasional wedding or funeral. “But to generate another $40,000 with weddings is not going to happen,” Taft said, and the building has not hosted an event since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The size of the lot, not quite a quarter of an acre, limits the building’s potential uses. “The lot is small enough that we can’t put well or septic on it,” Taft said. It also lacks parking.

The Garden Club covers basic maintenance through the sale of floral arrangements for weddings and other functions, made with flowers from members’ gardens. Bequests and donations built up the funds that covered this year’s major repairs.

Established in 1931, the Garden Club has 135 members, which makes it the largest garden club in the state, according to Taft. But the number was 340 when the club first restored the church in the early 1950s.

The history of the church appears to begin on Christmas 1840, when 30 residents of Harpswell agreed to subscribe to pews, according to the National Register of Historic Places nomination form.

The church was built the next year and dedicated on Sept. 21, 1841. The Universalist Society used the church from 1844 through 1870, then a Congregational organization took over the building. The Congregationalists held morning services at what is now Elijah Kellogg Church, at 917 Harpswell Neck Road, and afternoon services at the Union Church, 1.7 miles north at 553 Harpswell Neck Road.

The Congregationalists abandoned the Union Church in 1922 in favor of a single service at the Kellogg Church. The Union Church sat vacant until 1950, when the Garden Club’s Civic Committee set about restoring it. First, they secured permission from the pew holders or their heirs, when they could locate them.

Members had to pry open a window and climb through it to access the building, according to Taft. The club later had keys made to fit the original locks.

A newspaper clipping from the time refers to the building as the “Union Meeting House at North Harpswell.” The name of the publication and precise date of the clipping are unknown.

“Volunteer workers have been busy there since last week and will continue until the building is weatherproofed, at least, against severe winter storms,” says the clipping. “Major repairs will be continued when weather permits in the spring.”

An original bronze chandelier hangs from the ceiling of the Union Church. (J.W. Oliver photo)

Anne Taft holds an original wooden collection box at the Union Church on Harpswell Neck. Taft manages the property for the Harpswell Garden Club, which maintains the 182-year-old building. (J.W. Oliver photo)

The building had again fallen into disrepair by 1980, the approximate date of a newspaper clipping about another restoration effort. The article, by Margaret B. Todd, includes a description of some of the building’s features.

“Especially noteworthy is the entrance with double ten-panel Christian doors, flanked by pilasters of simple but good design,” Todd wrote. “The double doors open into an ample anteroom out of which rise, at the right and the left, steep narrow stairs to the small balcony. Access to the auditorium may be gained through any one of four doors — all hand-made of pumpkin pine, with the sign of the cross, and wrought iron latches.

“In spite of much broken plaster, the interior holds a quiet dignity. The austerely plain pulpit is solid mahogany with the base painted to simulate black onyx. Four steep steps, at both left and right, lead to the pulpit. The pumpkin pine box pews, painted white, are topped with black walnut and are well nigh priceless.”

The article notes that the granite slabs that form the foundation “were hauled by ox-team from Pennellville.” The church’s original 1840s reed organ remains in working condition, and a bronze chandelier hangs from the ceiling.

The Garden Club’s post-1980 repairs and improvements include the installation of electricity in 2002, removal of chimneys and repair of water damage in 2002-03, painting of the floor and pews in 2004, replacement of the roof and painting of the exterior in 2008, reglazing of windows in 2015, and another exterior paint job in 2017.

The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. The nomination form says the property’s “significance derives from the building’s architectural distinction.” It describes the church’s “modest but nevertheless handsome proportions” as “overwhelmingly Greek Revival in character mixed with Gothic Revival detailing.”

“North Harpswell’s Union Church is an important and virtually intact example of a towerless rural Maine religious building,” the form says. The building’s design places it “within a group of similar property types that date to the 1840s and can be found scattered across the countryside. However, few of these exhibit the delicate sense of proportion and composition of the facade evident here.”

The form says the church “clearly reflects the significant architectural expression that many of Maine’s rural congregations, despite their small size, achieved through their buildings during the second quarter of the nineteenth century.”

For more information about the Harpswell Garden Club and its event services, go to

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