Towns restoring iconic buildings

Starksboro Meeting Hall has been removed to allow work to be done as part of an ongoing restoration project. Several area towns are working to bring iconic local structures up to date.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
MONKTON — The East Monkton Church is one of the fine old buildings in the area that are relics of an earlier era. The white, wooden building, constructed in the classic New England style, predates phones and electricity, and, for that matter, cars. But it is still used each summer as a place of worship.
And like a few other local pieces of the past — notably public buildings in Starksboro and Bristol — the community group that manages this church is hoping to restore it.
Candace Polzella, who helped found the East Monkton Church Association Inc. three years ago, said her group plans to keep the church in use as a valuable part of the town.
“It’s a historic building, and it’s been a part of our community since 1867,” Polzella said.
Some work has already been done on the building on Church Road. The association raised enough money to re-roof the building in the summer of 2006. But Polzella said they would eventually like to do a lot more work, including replacing some windows and rotted wood, repainting the exterior, and repairing the front entrance and foundation of the 140-year-old building.
Besides needing these repairs, the church is a remnant of Monkton’s history that retains some aspects of its 19th century origin. It has electricity, but no running water. Its only source of heat is a wood stove in the vestibule, so the building goes unused through the winter. There is not even a parking lot on the small plot of land; when the church is in use, visitors pull up on the lawn or park along the road.
Polzella said that the association’s main concern is preserving the building, so plans for further work such as adding modern amenities like plumbing have not yet been determined.
But in the summer, the congregations of two local churches put the site to good use. Charles Graham, pastor of the Bristol Federated Church, said that his parishioners and those in the affiliated Monkton Friends Church hold services in the East Monkton Church over the summer.
“(The location) makes it convenient to hold the joint service there,” Graham said.
The Monkton Historical Society also uses the building on occasion. Gill Coates, chairman of the society, said that the church is valuable both for the local history within its walls and for more practical reasons.
“In Monkton, space is really limited for public meetings,” he said.
Preserving beautiful, old buildings is a constant challenge for Vermont towns. The board of directors of the Starksboro Village Meeting House is also renovating that building, and the town of Bristol has done repairs on Howden Hall over the summer and the tower of Holley Hall, which is also slated for improvements to the heating system soon.
According to Coates, the problems of age and decay at the East Monkton Church are common elsewhere. Many other Vermont churches were also constructed for rural congregations in isolated areas in the 19th century, and despite still being used occasionally, time is taking its toll on them.
“Declining church membership has put a lot of churches at risk,” Coates said.
Such churches, though often used seasonally, are usually not used by their original congregations. The original deed of the East Monkton Church stated that it belonged to its congregation, but it was not regularly used between the 1960s and 2004, when the EMCA was founded. Polzella said she is not sure about the legal status of the building, but it is “in the hands of” the association.
The renovation is an ongoing project. The East Monkton Church Association held a concert on Sept. 16 to raise money for the work, featuring local musical duo Pete and Karen Sutherland, who performed for the crowd in the church itself. “The acoustics in the place are lovely, and it’s nice to have local talent,” Polzella said.
Admission was by donation, and the EMCA also hoped simply to raise awareness of the church and open it up to the community. “We (wanted) people to come, have a good time, see the building, and hopefully donate,” Polzella said. She did not want to say how much money was raised, but she judged it a success, adding that they are also still taking in donations from people who were inspired to donate by the event.
Meanwhile, in Starksboro, the board of directors of the Starksboro Village Meeting House is part way through a similar project. The first phase of work on the belfry, repairing and stabilizing the lower original section, was finished in the summer, and the board is raising funds for similar work on the upper section.
Completed in 1840, the meetinghouse on Route 116 in the village used to be both a church and the town offices, but it has started to need a lot of work in recent years. According to Cynthia Kling, the board of directors has been raising money for the work since 1974 with a lot of community support.
“Our town comes through,” Kling said of a recent fund-raiser, a tour of Shelburne Farms on Sept. 9, which raised about $600. “It did very well. We had about 25 people who joined us, it was wonderful.”
The meetinghouse is used for weddings and other special events. Although some Starksboro residents may think it is town property, the board of directors itself has owned it since 1974.
“We call ourselves a secret society because nobody knows who we are or why we exist,” Kling joked.
In addition to some volunteer work on the inside of the building, the top of the historic four-pointed belfry was lowered so the structure of the steeple could be bolstered during work over the summer. “When the company got up there, they said it would be better to do the bell tower first,” Kling said.
The September fund-raising efforts were the latest of many similar projects since 1974. The board spent about $11,000 to repair the bell tower. Definite plans for the next phase of work will have to await further funding, but Kling expects future repairs to cost upwards of $30,000.
Seeing the old belfry lowered for work was a major step in the long process of restoring the building. For Kling, who has lived in Starksboro and served on the board for years, it was a moving experience. “When it came down, I cried. I hated to see it come off.”
The steeple of Bristol’s Holley Hall in the downtown is also being repaired, mostly to fix damage done by rainwater running into the wall and rotting portions of the wood. Bill Bryant, town administrator of Bristol, said he expects work on diverting that water to be done any day now. Some repairs of the bricks in the 120-year-old building have already been finished, although the damage proved to be more extensive than the town had hoped.
“We were trying to limit the amount of intrusion into the wall because the bricks are very fragile,” Bryant said. “But in the end, we’ll have to take about 20 more bricks out (than we expected).”
Bristol contractor Ted Lylis will be replacing the porch on the corner of the building this fall, which was removed to make room for the work above it. Bryant said that some masonry work will have to be left over until the spring.
Howden Hall on West Street, presently the home of the Bristol Historical Society, dates back to 1842. It has been at various times a church, a store and a school.
Work on the exterior of the building was mostly completed in the summer of 2006: the exterior was repainted, the windows in the front of the building were enlarged to their original size, and leaks in the slate roof were fixed.
A $20,000 project contracted to Champlain Valley Plumbing and Heating was due to start this week: refurbishing of the heating system with a new boiler and addition of an indoor fuel tank and new radiators. The work is due to be finished by the winter.
“The schedule has worked out nicely,” Bryant said. “We don’t want to make the historical society homeless.”
Bryant said the town is planning on a third phase of the work devoted to remodeling the inside. The wall of the lobby would be pushed back to make it larger. In addition, two separate rooms on the main floor, one used for historical displays and another used for various group and committee meetings, would be combined to make one large room used for both purposes. However, that work is not scheduled for this fiscal year.
“They do take a fair amount of TLC (tender loving care),” Bryant said. “But you couldn’t build a building this grand today, so it’s worth it.”

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