Historic window awaits the future
A close-up of one of the panels of the “Sower and the Seed” stained glass window that was salvaged from the former Methodist Church on Atkinson Street in Bellows Falls.

Historic window awaits the future

Plans are afoot for the town of Rockingham to purchase the Bellows Falls Train Station — the only place big enough to display the one remaining stained-glass window from the 1835 former church which was demolished in 2021

BELLOWS FALLS — It stands 14 feet tall and is nearing 200 years old, but it's in remarkable shape considering what it has gone through in its long life.

A large stained-glass window illustrating Jesus' parable of the “Sower and the Seed” is, as far as anyone can tell, the last such artifact from the former Methodist church which was built in 1835 and once stood at 66 Atkinson St.

That building was demolished in December 2021, but with the blessing of the Rockingham Selectboard and the efforts of the Rockingham Historic Preservation Commission, contractors removed the window before the demolition started.

Since then, it has been stored and on display in one of the few places in the village with a ceiling high enough to hold it - the Bellows Falls train station.

A crowdfunding campaign raised $6,325 toward saving and restoring the window.

“I know there are many who have had memories made in this building; it was a Church when I was a child,” wrote Alisa Miller, who organized the GoFundMe effort. “It would mean a lot to many in our village if we can at least preserve this small piece of our history.”

Historic Preservation Commission members hope that the window can be fully restored and displayed in a protected environment. But that scenario is up in the air.

A building with many lives

It was the second church, and the first Methodist Church, to be built in Bellows Falls. In the mid-1830s, it was meant to be a symbol of the center of the Village. It's close to the middle of Atkinson Street. School Street looks directly at the front entry to the church - or, at least, where it used to be.

Today, the site is an empty lot.

The building had a number of lives over the years. It was next used as a Baptist Church and, later, as a Grange Hall. For over 50 years, it was owned by various incarnations of the YMCA, and served as a youth club, day care, senior center, exercise and aerobics center, after-school center, and a karate dojo, among its post-church incarnations.

For the last decade, with Meeting Waters YMCA moving to newer facilities, the old church building saw limited use. Already in need of renovations and repairs, the lack of use led to even greater problems.

When the YMCA decided in 2014 that it was simply too expensive to continue to heat the building, the organization sold it to resident Christopher Glennon for $1. Glennon wanted the building preserved, and made efforts toward that end.

However, with renovations estimated to run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, saving the decaying building - even with the help of other citizens - simply became too expensive.

A 2018 report noted structural instability, collapsing ceilings, and slates falling off the roof. These conditions were a growing safety concern, in particular because the building was next to an elementary school.

A fundraiser to preserve the building was unsuccessful.

The Selectboard decided the building needed to be demolished, and in October 2021 gave permission to the Historic Preservation Commission to see what, if any, key pieces of the structure could be salvaged.

Among the architectural specimens considered were post-and-beam framing, hardwood floors, hand-hewn beams, the church steeple, and the remaining stained glass window.

But water damage from the leaking roof, high salvage costs, and safety and other issues prevented all but the window from being rescued or reused.

When the Selectboard realized that the market value of the window was not as great as expected and would not cover the cost of removal and restoration of the window and demolition of the building, they indicated they were not interested in it.

The group Destination Bellows Falls, which operates the train station for Amtrak, showed an interest in removing the window and displaying it in the station.

At this point, the late Bellows Falls attorney and town activist Ray Massucco contacted the group. He reported that he had been talking with members of the Twelve Tribes, a religious group that runs a commune and several small businesses in the town.

Massucco told the Selectboard that the Twelve Tribes had construction expertise and some equipment and would volunteer to remove the window and transport it and install it at the station.

Destination Bellows Falls agreed to rent a lift to aid with the removal and pay for insurance for the process. The Twelve Tribes brought several volunteers and their own equipment, and the window was removed and installed at the station.

“It was quite an undertaking,” said Gary Fox, Rockingham development director. “It just barely fit into the station, and all hands were needed. It was quite a trick to get it up and in place.”

Once the window was removed, the building was quickly demolished. Now, attention has turned to what can be done to preserve this piece of Bellows Falls history.

The window itself needs rehabilitation, with some holes in the glass needing repairs. Its frame also needs work.

The last window

While this is one of five or six stained glass windows that were originally in the building, what happened to the others is a mystery.

Some speculate that the other windows were sold when the building was owned by the YMCA, and that some were bought by a restaurant in Ludlow, but that is unverified.

Seeing the window can be a bit tricky. The Bellows Falls train station is only open for a short period around the time that passenger trains are coming through. (Amtrak's Vermonter leaves daily at 12:30 p.m. and arrives daily at 5:26 p.m.)

But that will change, as the town is in the process of purchasing the over-100-year old station and has received considerable federal and local grants and donations toward an estimated $4-plus million historic restoration.

Fox said that Destination Bellows Falls will move the window into storage. Plans are underway to create a Connecticut River Heritage Center based in the area surrounding the train station and including the River Front Historical Park, which consists of trails and historic buildings south along the river. The Center will highlight early Native culture, as well as the rail, paper mills and canal heritage in the village.

“That's the intent,” Fox said. “We're going to try to weave the story of the window and the building it came from into that narrative. The canal, the railroads, and the paper industry are all connected in the same period of time that the church was built and active.”

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