The team of volunteers dedicated to renovating and revitalizing the 183-year-old Winterport Union Meeting House compare the process of painstakingly going through each little corner of the building to an archaeological dig.
“Really, it’s like peeling back the layers of an onion,” said Ann Ronco, treasurer for Union Meeting House, Inc., the nonprofit tasked with maintaining the former church. “There’s layers and layers of history here that you have to dig out.”
Winterport residents and nonresidents alike will get a chance to see those layers of history this Friday, June 10, when the Winterport Union Meeting House opens its doors for an open house, set for 6 to 9 p.m. It’s also the first time ever that nearly anyone has ever seen the 1833 building lit up — until this spring, the meeting house did not have electrical lighting. Aside from one outlet in the back of the building, in fact, it didn’t have any electricity period.
“After all these years, we can finally have events here at night,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, president of the meeting house board. “People can charge their phones. We’re finally in the 21st century.”
The Winterport Union Meeting House was built in 1833, paid for by funds from townsfolk — then residents of Frankfort, as Winterport had not yet incorporated — who bought $60 pews to pay for the construction. A silver Paul Revere bell, cast in the Revolutionary War hero’s Boston foundry, was donated to be hung in the belfry, which still peals each day at noon. In 1861, a steeple clock, manufactured by the E. Howard Company of Massachusetts, was installed, which still tells the time and rings the hour.
Despite being situated in the center of downtown Winterport, few people living today have ever set foot inside the Union Meeting House. For most of its first 100 years, the building housed churches — Congregationalist and Methodist, though other denominations also held services at various times. A stack of hymnals sits in the back of the building, recording the names of parishioners who purchased the songbooks in the early 20th century. Attendance dwindled by the 1930s, however, and for nearly 30 years after World War II, the building laid empty, gradually falling apart — and falling out of people’s minds).
“There are a lot of people who don’t even know this place is here, and they may drive past it every day,” said Fitzpatrick. “It’s right on Route 1, and you don’t even see it.”
In the mid-1970s a group of volunteers came together to try to do fix the general disrepair — the Union Meeting House group was founded, and in 1973 the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Slowly but surely, the organization has renovated the building, from the leaky roof and crumbling steeple, to painting and refinishing walls, to the sewing of new cushions for the pews, to the removal of raggedy, mismatched old carpet from the floors — revealing old, handmade 19th century quilts used as carpet pads.
Perhaps the biggest undertaking occurred this year, with the installation of the electric lighting. The Union Meeting House board worked with experts to recreate the gaslight sconces that lined the walls, and to fashion a new chandelier for the center — the original chandelier disappeared at some point in the 1970s or 1980s, and is believed stolen.
“The building probably wasn’t locked, so someone probably just came in and took it, somehow,” Maggie English-Flanagan, who also sits on the board. “We’d love to know what happened to it.”
Despite that one incidence of theft, the Union Meeting House has remained remarkably well-preserved. It is believed that the glass in the windows is the original glass from the 1830s, and the early 19th century Paul Revere bell and the E. Howard steeple clock still chime every day. Fundraising for renovation efforts continues, and eventually, the board would like to install a furnace so the building can be heated during the winter months, and events can happen year-round.
“We just want it to be the place it was always meant to be: a gathering place for the town,” said English-Flanagan. “It’s such a great resource that we have here, and we just want more people to know about it.”
Friday’s open house will have a silent auction featuring Red Sox tickets, Waterfront Concerts tickets, a Macy’s gift basket and more. There are also two ticketed events coming up later this summer, including a talk by by former Maine game warden John Ford on Aug. 16, and an event with Tim Sample on Sept. 18. The meeting house is available for rentals for weddings, music recitals and memorials; to inquire, call Flanagan at 505-5157. For more information, like the Winterport Union Meeting House on Facebook.