MACHIASPORT, Maine — “Oh!” the crowd of spectators murmured early Wednesday as the restored belvedere of Liberty Hall began to move. The 14,600-pound tower was lifted from the ground next to the hall up to its original place at the front of the hall’s roof, 48 feet up.
A massive crane roared, steel cables tightened and the ornate structure began to rise.
It went over David Freedberg’s house, above Muriel and Eugene Stanhope’s old home, and high enough to overlook Machias Bay and Round Island, where the first naval battle of the Revolutionary War was fought.
But what it actually did, what the town has saved and worked for years to accomplish, was to get the belvedere home.
Restored to its original 1873 design, the Victorian-style cupola, complete with mansard roof and 9-foot-tall weathervane, had been seen only in historic photographs taken around 1900.
“No one who’s alive today has ever actually seen it on the building,” said Frank Foster, 88, a member of the Committee to Save Liberty Hall.
“This is fantastic,” Foster said as he watched the belvedere raised to its original perch. “Everyone has been waiting for so many years.”
Douglas Stanhope arrived before dawn to watch the process. Stanhope used to live next door to Liberty Hall, which was built in 1873 and, before it was closed in 2000 because of its deteriorating condition, it served as Machiasport’s town hall, and cultural and community center.
Stanhope recalled holding onto the legs and feet of former Selectman Gerry Holmes many years ago as Holmes crawled through a hole in the belvedere roof to remove the hall’s original weathervane.
“As a boy, I used to lug water over in pails for the bean suppers, and I’d get a free supper,” Stanhope recalled. He said that around 1950, it was common to see six or seven sardine carriers in the bay across the street.
He also recalled shooting matches held in the woods behind the hall, where the winner would receive a cake.
But over the years, the historic building began to crumble. In 2005, the Committee to Save Liberty Hall was created, and an ambitious $1.1 million fundraising campaign began for the restoration of the landmark.
Lifting the belvedere began at dawn Wednesday, and by 8 a.m. the cupola was in place, sliding the last few feet on pillars greased with dishwashing liquid.
The move was celebrated by a large cheer from the crowd that had gathered below.
Overseeing it all were crews from Consigli Construction, the firm restoring Liberty Hall, and Hewes and Co. of Blue Hill, which restored the belvedere, along with Russell Wright of Machiasport, the coppersmith who along with his brother Victor Wright and his nephew Kevin Wright sheathed the mansard roof.
“We started in late August,” Russell Wright said. “It was a team effort to get this ready for a Thanksgiving deadline.”
Wright said the process of setting the belvedere was so exact that there was but an Þ- inch clearance on the support pillars.
Chip Knowlton, one of the largest benefactors of the project, was busy snapping pictures. He shares his time between Bucks Harbor in Machiasport and Pennsylvania.
“I think it was the church suppers here, that my daughter played basketball here,” he said of his generosity. “Liberty Hall brings back such fond memories of my parents and grandparents. But the most important thing is that the building can be used by the community in the future and touch so many people’s lives here.”
Watching with his son Logan, Committee to Save Liberty Hall member Wayne Wood of Machias was impressed with the details on the cupola.
“That’s artwork right there,” he said.
Patrick Taber, project manager for Hewes and Co., said the belvedere was rebuilt in sections in the company’s Blue Hill facility.
“It would have been unaffordable for the town to rebuild this in place. It was a great challenge but also a lot of fun,” he said.
All of the yellow painted boards on the new belvedere were salvaged from the original. “This was a lot of work, restoring this,” Taber said. “We spent a lot of nights here until 3 a.m. making sure we had it right.”
Foster said the plastic sheathing protecting the hall’s exterior will be removed next Wednesday, and the next step for the Save Liberty Hall Committee will be to begin working on the interior of the hall.
“We need to install utilities, sewage removal and handicapped access,” he said. “It’ll be a matter of continued fundraising.”