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Norlands begins restoration of 1828 Meeting House steeple

Meeting House with scaffolding

The Washburn-Norlands Living History Center in Livermore has embarked upon a project to fully restore the steeple and bell tower that adorns the center’s oldest building, its 1828 Meeting House.

The restoration will include strengthening the framing with new posts, building and installing a new bell wheel, and repairing or replacing the upper and lower railings, decorative lattice work, clapboards, and other deteriorating woodwork. Also, flashing will be repaired where it meets the roofline and the entire steeple will be scraped, sanded, primed, caulked, and painted. 

When finished, the steeple will once again be structurally sound and weather-tight, harkening back to 1828, when Israel Washburn Sr. and his neighbor, Otis Pray, raised money to build the church. The work is expected to be completed in October.

Norlands has been able to embark on the project thanks to recent grant awards, including a $60,000 matching grant from the Maine Steeples Fund of the Maine Community Foundation, which Norlands is halfway to matching. The National Society Daughters of the American Revolution also donated $10,000 to the project, made possible by the sponsorship of the Mary Dillingham-Burnt Meadow Chapter of Lewiston. To date, three individual donors have contributed a total of $25,000. 

The entire project will cost upwards of $136,000. Norlands is seeking cash donations and in-kind gifts to finish meeting the match and the expense of the project. Contributions of all sizes are welcome. Those interested in donating to the project can do so by calling 897-4366 or securely online at www.norlands.org   

“The steeple is a beacon that contributes to the quality of place at Norlands and in the greater Livermore community,” said Harry Simon, president of the Norlands Board of Trustees. “It’s incredible to think that more than a thousand people attended the dedication of the Meeting House in 1829, and today we can still see the same view the Washburns saw then. We are doing everything we can to preserve this historic structure.” For more information about Norlands or the Steeple Preservation Project, contact Simon at harry.simon@norlands.org.

Built in 1828 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Meeting House is the oldest building at Norlands. It was the first church in Livermore to have a steeple, which stands at 105 feet high. Israel Washburn, Sr., and his neighbor, Otis Pray, donated the land and raised money by selling pews. The church is a Federal style meeting house with distinctive Victorian changes, first designed by Martin Cushing, a prominent architect and builder of the region.  

More than a thousand people attended the dedication service on June 18, 1829. The church remained in regular use until 1869, when a new church was built in the new population center of Livermore Falls. The Norlands’ church continued to be used for summer services. 

In 1872, Israel Washburn hired one of Maine’s most prominent architects, George Harding, to remodel the church. The singers’ balcony was eliminated, new windows were installed, and new interior trim was completed. The high pulpit was removed and a front platform was installed. 

Another significant change was the addition of frescoes and decorative trompe d’oeil (fool the eye) paintings on the plaster walls and ceiling. Artist Valentine L. Keiler was active in Portland, Maine, between 1869 and 1873. The Washburns were pleased with his work, writing in their family journal on October 5, 1873: “Keiler, the fresco man, went home today. The Church looks finely.”

Today the Meeting House remains a fascinating combination of late Federal style and early Gothic Revival details, all overlaid with decorative Victorian elements. While summer services stopped sometime in the early 20th century, the Meeting House is still used to explore and teach the history of rural Maine life, religion, and the Washburn family. Programs, and sometimes historical church services, take place in the building during special events. The Meeting House is also rented for wedding ceremonies and other special functions. 

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