Franklin Countys First News

Steeple restoration begins at Norlands

The Norlands Meeting House with scaffolding.

LIVERMORE - When people travel north on Norlands Road, they are oftentimes surprised to see a lovely steeple rise above the landscape on the rural road. It is the first clue that something special is about to happen. That special thing is a place where the past lives on in a setting virtually unchanged since the 1800s and a time when the remarkable Washburn family called the place home.

These days, those passing by now see the oldest building at Washburn-Norlands Living History Center encased in modern-day steel scaffolding - a sure sign that a transformation is about to take place.

Built in 1828, the meeting house is the oldest building at Norlands and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was the first church in Livermore to have a steeple, with the spire rising to 105 feet. The church is a Federal Style meeting house with distinctive Victorian changes, first designed by Martin Cushing, a prominent architect and builder of the region. The church remained in regular use until 1869 when a new church was built in the new population center of Livermore Falls.

In 1872, Israel Washburn hired George Harding, one of Maine's most prominent architects, to remodel the church. The singers’ balcony was eliminated, new windows installed and interior trim was installed. The high pulpit was removed and a front platform installed. Another significant change was the frescoes and decorative trompe d’oeil (painting to fool the eye) painted on the plaster walls and ceiling.

Norlands, now a museum offering an authentic view of 19th-century life in rural Maine, announced this week that a full restoration of the meeting house steeple and bell tower has begun. The restoration includes strengthening the framing with new posts, building and installing a new bell wheel, and repairing or replacing the upper and lower railings, decorative lattice work, clapboards and other deteriorating woodwork. The weather has not been kind to the structure over the past decade. The flashing will be repaired where it meets the roofline. The entire steeple, from the roofline up, will be scraped, sanded, primed, caulked and painted. When finished, it will be more structurally sound and weather tight. It will shine bright once again - harking back 1828 when Israel Washburn Sr. and his neighbor, Otis Pray, raised money to build the church. The work is expected to be completed in October.

Norlands has been able to start the restoration thanks to recent grant funding awarded to the center. The Maine Steeples Fund, a component fund of the Maine Community Foundation, awarded a $60,000 matching grant. Norlands is halfway to meeting the match. Earlier this year, the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution donated $10,000 to the preservation project. This grant funding was made possible through the sponsorship of Mary Dillingham-Burnt Meadow Chapter, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, based in Lewiston. To date, three individual donors have given a total of $25,000. This project, like most major restoration projects, is not inexpensive and will cost upwards of $136,000. Norlands is seeking cash donations and gifts-in-kind to finish meeting the match and the expense of the project.

"The steeple is a beacon that contributes to the quality of place at Norlands and in the greater Livermore community. To think that more than a thousand people attended the dedication of the meeting house in 1829 and we are seeing the same view as the Washburns enjoyed is just incredible. We are doing everything we can to preserve the structure," said Harry Simon, president of the Board of Trustees.

Sheri Leahan, Norlands’ director said: “We are thrilled to have the support of the DAR, an organization that supports historic preservation and education, as well as the Maine Steeples Fund, a fund that supports historically and culturally significant buildings. Both funding opportunities fit within our mission. We’re so grateful that they have included us among the many organizations they champion.”

For more information about Norlands and the Steeple Preservation Project, please contact Harry Simon, President of the Board of Trustees, at Community members interested in donating to this project can do so securely online via Norlands’ website – or by calling 207-897-4366. Contributions of all sizes make a difference.

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