Hampden Garden Club digs in to restore historic landmark Harmony Hall

A restoration effort is under way for Harmony Hall in Hampden, formerly the Universalist Church. It was built in 1828 and purchased by the Hampden Garden Club in 1966.
John Clarke Russ | BDN
A restoration effort is under way for Harmony Hall in Hampden, formerly the Universalist Church. It was built in 1828 and purchased by the Hampden Garden Club in 1966. Buy Photo
By Andrew Neff, BDN Staff
Posted March 30, 2012, at 7:06 p.m.

HAMPDEN, Maine — It may be the most historic building hardly anyone in Hampden knows about.

It was one of Hampden’s first churches, its belfry houses one of only 132 Revere Foundry bells in the U.S., it’s where Susan B. Anthony drew a large crowd while delivering a women’s suffrage speech in 1898 and it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It is known as Harmony Hall, but the 185-year-old, Greek Revival-style building with Gothic features is largely unknown to most.

Members of the Hampden Garden Club, which has called Harmony Hall its home since 1937, hope to change that.

“It’s heartbreaking how many people right here in Hampden don’t even know this building’s here,” said Pat Kerfoot, co-president of the Hampden Garden Club, which bought the building for $1 from a Pennsylvania man, Franklin Tolman, in 1966.

“We’re the only garden club in the state that owns a building,” said Anne Bennett, the club’s other co-president and a Bangor native who has lived in Hampden since 1961.

Hampden’s hidden, historic treasure is located at 24 Kennebec Road and it’s open for business.

”We’re very interested in getting more public involvement,” said Kerfoot. “We’re trying to use it more often for events like banquets, weddings, parties and benefits.”

It would have been one of the last places in mind to host those events a few years ago after falling into severe disrepair, but the 45 club members formed a committee to raise funds and plan for a $40,000 renovation.

The six-member committee was created in 2008 and has managed to raise $19,000, plus $7,100 through a grant from the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and $600 from the town of Hampden.

The money covered the cost of rebuilding the hall’s foundation last fall and replacing all nine Gothic windows, which were close to falling out of their frames. The foundation was slipping off the granite blocks underneath and forming a bulge on the outside of the building.

Bennett, Kerfoot and fellow volunteers Ellen Pariser, Pat Totman and Joan Kirk mailed out donation requests, which were answered generously by townspeople; started a “pane relief” drive costing donors $40 a pane; and raised money with perennials and pie sales.

With the windows almost done, the front porch and a new paint job are next.

“The paint’s in horrible condition. We also need to replace decayed boards on the front porch, and the steps are a bit dangerous,” Kerfoot said. “We also want to make it handicapped-accessible.”

Kerfoot figures the cost for painting and the porch to be $20,000-$30,000.

Restoring the former church to grandeur isn’t being done just for aesthetic reasons. Making it more presentable is beginning to pay off in terms of raising the building’s profile and making it a desirable location to host events.

“One of our goals is to just get the public in there more and see it,” said Bennett, noting that the hall has already hosted a wedding. “Everyone who comes to see it falls in love with it. It’s a beautiful building and it would be a shame if it isn’t appreciated and used more.”

The building, which features a suspended interior balcony that extends around three sides and is supported by iron rods attached to the ceiling, has been used for a wide variety of purposes over the years. Those include church services for the first 58 years; youth basketball games; headquarters for the Village Improvement Society, which bought the Hall in 1895; the garden club; and even a farmers market — inside the building.

“The Village Improvement Society took out most of the pews and built a stage. It was supposed to host a play in 1915, after a fresco mural of a Greek garden and fountain was painted on the backdrop,” Kerfoot said. “But word got around town that the play was going to be risque and naughty, and the play was never put on. I have no idea what the title of the play was, or what it was about.”

The hall did host a play — Ten Bucks Theater Company’s production of “The Crucible” — last year and drew a sizable crowd.

The society also moved the belfry, which was starting to collapse, and the brass Revere Bell, which was made in 1827 and installed in the belfry in 1830, to the front of the building.

Bennett and Kerfoot know there’s still a lot of work to be done, but the retirees are hopeful it will be finished while they’re around to appreciate it.

“We’ve been laughing about the fact that we have 16 years until the building’s bicentennial, and that should give us plenty of time to make it handicapped-accessible, so we can attend the ceremony in our wheelchairs,” Kerfoot said with a chuckle.

Anyone who wants to help with Harmony Hall’s restoration may call Pat Kerfoot at 862-3909 or Anne Bennett at 862-3467.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/03/30/news/bangor/hampden-garden-club-digs-in-to-restore-historic-landmark-harmony-hall/ printed on December 28, 2014