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The Guilford Selectboard has reluctantly declined to accept an offer from the Guilford Historical Society of the Old Meetinghouse, built in 1837 using timbers from the previous meetinghouse built in the 1770s.

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Guilford Center meeting house deemed too costly a gift

Historical Society leaders had hoped the town would accept the nearly-185-year-old structure, but aren’t surprised; Selectboard hopes private sector will step up to help

Visit guilfordhistorical.org to learn more about the meeting house.

GUILFORD—Selectboard members have refused the gift to the town of the Guilford Center Meeting House by the Guilford Historical Society, citing prohibitive rehabilitation costs and advice from the architecture firm working on the library as reasons to pass on the offer.

The vote not to accept the meeting house as a gift to the town was unanimous.

“I think I can speak for the board and say we are all disappointed, but I can understand, even though it’s disappointing,” said Historical Society board member Diane Frost this week. “I didn’t expect that they would [take it], but we had to try.”

“For the town to take it on, I’m sure they were asking themselves, ‘what are we going to do with it?’” Frost continued. “There’s no parking and no land around it.”

Formerly the Guilford Center Universalist Church, the historic building on Guilford Center Road was built in 1837 in transitional Greek Revival style. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

“It’s just a wonderful church/meeting house where many families have had memorial services, gotten married, [had] school graduations — it is the center of town,” Frost said. “But we still own it, and maybe that is a good thing.”

The Society has been applying for grants to cover some repair costs, but members say they need the public’s support.

At the Dec. 13 meeting, Selectboard Chair Richard Wizansky offered an overview of the proposal by the Historical Society to give the meeting house to the town. He noted the Selectboard had asked Goldstone Architecture, which is working on a design for the Guilford Free Library, to review the proposal and building.

In a “very elegant” report made after a site visit, “the architects are recommending the town not accept the meeting house,” Wizansky said.

They also cited the cost to repair the roof and ceiling, the lack of plumbing/sewer infrastructure or parking, and their assessment that the space doesn’t lend itself well to interior development as among reasons to pass on the offer.

The town Finance Advisory Committee also recommended against accepting the meeting house.

“We completely agreed with the architects’ recommendations and felt the cost of accepting that gift and maintaining it provided primarily historic and sentimental value, but not felt value to the town going forward, and that any financial resources the town might put into that sort of property could be spent better elsewhere in the town,” said Chair Sheila Morse.

Board members expressed their reluctance to pass on the offer several times.

“It’s a beautiful building, I’ll say that,” said Selectboard member Michael Becker. “It feels like the private sector is a better fit.”

“I totally agree,” Wizansky said. “I think it’s beautiful, and I’m very sad that at this time the town can’t take on this expense, not to mention the maintenance and future expenses.”

He went on to say he hopes residents can mount a fundraising campaign to accomplish the work needed to sustain the building.

“It really is difficult to turn away the offer, and it is my hope that people will come forward with a new perfect use for that building and that we, as private citizens, can be part of supporting that,” said board member Verandah Porche, acknowledging how strongly people feel about the building.

A gem in need of TLC

Two Vermont architectural scholars have written about the meeting house and its significance as part of their decades of study and documentation of architecture in the state: Glenn Andres, professor emeritus of art and architecture at Middlebury College, and Curtis Johnson, a cultural resources consultant and former architectural historian at the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation.

Describing the meeting house as “the dominant feature of its hamlet,” they write on the Society of Architectural Historians Archipedia website (sah-archipedia.org) that “this small but lovingly detailed building presents a mix of Vermont traditions from the 1830s.”

The church was built with timbers from a dismantled 1770s meeting house to house the town’s Universalist congregation, they write.

“Its gable-front main body and square tower place it in the Federal church lineage introduced to the state by Asher Benjamin at the end of the 18th century,” write the authors.

“To preserve correct proportions within the diminutive façade, the builder used a solution found on a number of small Vermont meetinghouses of the 1820s and 1830s,” they write. “He reduced the centerpiece to two bays, with barely enough room to set windows above its twin doors. While the composition was conservative by the 1830s, the Greek Revival detailing of the centerpiece is more contemporary.”

Andres and Johnson go on to note fluted pilasters carrying broad entablatures at the doors and plain pilasters and “more modest entablatures” over the windows supporting a mutule — a stone block projecting under a cornice in the Doric order — decorated cornice and pediment above. Detailing in the church body and tower also shows an early instance of Gothic tastes, they say.

“Each stage of the tower is capped with crenellations and pierced with louvered pointed-arch openings and the large windows of the body are topped with pointed arches formed by louvered screens,” they write. “The medieval profile of the louvered screens is found elsewhere in the region, sometimes in conjunction with Greek features as well, but seldom with the felicity found in this fine building.”

Too much to take on

In March of 2020, Historical Society board members found that part of the meeting house’s ceiling had fallen and “deteriorated rapidly in the last six months and, apparently more so, since everything closed down during this historic global pandemic.”

Prior to that and when it happened, the board worked with the Preservation Trust of Vermont for evaluation and recommendations of anticipated repairs inside and outside the meeting house.

“We have many old churches in town, all in the same state of disrepair and built around the same time,” Frost said. “This church was given to the Historical Society back in the day.”

The estimate for the repairs to the special Guilford slate roof and the interior ceiling exceeded $100,000, she said.

Frost says contributing to the disrepair is that the building is not heated in winter and that the vibration of traffic on Guilford Center Road has greatly affected the domed horsehair ceiling.

That the building is now on the National Historic Register means that any change to it will require some potential hoop jumping vis-a-vis review and regulations and costly restoration fixes.

COVID-19 precautions continue and, with winter setting in, the building will be as buttoned up as it can be.

“Our meeting house will not be open for some time until it can be repaired, regardless of health directives,” said board members in the Society newsletter. “It will have to be made safe to enter, structurally and as a gathering place, health-wise.”

Wizansky said the board hopes that some solution will be found in the private sector to hold on to that building, “for its historical sake, for its sentimental sake, and for its beauty.”

“And its great acoustics,” added Porche.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #644 (Wednesday, December 22, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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