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The Story of South Meeting House

SOUTH MEETING HOUSE HISTORY (continued)

The building was reportedly boarded up for economy reasons during the Second World War. After the war the city found itself with what would become a familiar problem: it owned a building for which it no longer had a use but which was too prominent and historic to be demolished. The venerable meetinghouse evidently experienced the shabby neglect that characterized the South End at that time.

In 1960 - 62 it was used as a clubhouse by the Disabled American Veterans. Neighborhood complaints led to the loss of their liquor license, and they relinquished their lease.

In 1962 the City considered disposing of the building. Strawbery Banke, then a young organization bent on historic preservation, stepped up. In 1963, the Banke informally took over the building, and in 1966 it signed a 50-year lease with the city. It was a pattern of non-governmental activism that would be repeated.

The period of Strawbery Banke use of the building lasted until the late 1970s, over 15 years. It was marked by a return to its use as a multifunction community resource. According to research by Shannon Lefebvre, "the upstairs meeting room and downstairs facilities were used for internal museum meetings as well as lent or rented for weddings, rehearsals and performances, meetings, and shows, possibly even yard sales." Even the 7th Day Adventists, recalling its early religious use. Starting in 1970 it was the venue for a weekend concert series by the Strawbery Banke String Quartet. In the summer of 1972 alone it played host to an art show by the New Hampshire Art Association, a music festival, performances of a vintage one-act farce, and a flower show.

It was during the Strawbery Banke period, by the way, that the old name South Meeting House became permanently attached to the building. The Banke, in fact, named it The Olde South Meeting House, recalling the building's predecessors, but also accurately reflecting its vision of a multifunction community resource.

Ultimately, the costs of restoration, maintenance, and repairs, coupled with soaring fuel costs and the loss of a key private sponsor, forced the Banke to return the building to the city.

In 1979-80 the city spent some $67,000 on urgent work that required removing and restoring the cupola and repairing the roof and associated structures. But each repair seemingly uncovered additional deterioration. Further expenditures were halted by the City Council, and the building was put up for sale or lease in the summer of 1980.

At this point two community organizations stepped forward. One was the Portsmouth Advocates and the other was what would become the Children's Museum of Portsmouth, but at that time consisted of Denise "Denny" Doleac, Ona Barnet and a vision.

The Advocates commissioned a study by the Thoresen Group that evaluated three different options for re-use of the building: a community arts center, a combination home and occupation, and two residential condominiums. It remains an excellent summary of the history and significance of the building. It included a draft application for the building's inclusion in the National Registry of Historic Places. That application was submitted by the Children's Museum as a first order of busiiness, and it remains an important protection for the building.

The City Council approved the Children's Museum proposal in June 1982, and in September a lease was signed for $1 a year, with all the upkeep and repairs the responsibility of the tenant. Denny recalls it as being "in terrible, terrible condition – broken and missing windows, no heating system, broken pipes, graffiti, overgrown lawn, etc." Private fundraising and community contributions of labor and materials enabled the Museum to open to the public on July 30, 1983. It would remain open until May 26, 2008, just short of 25 years. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the Children's Museum for its stewardship of the Meeting House for this critical quarter-century.

It became publicly clear in 2004-2005 that the Children's Museum would be vacating the building and returning it to the city. The city was certainly aware that it was again going to face the question of what to do with the property. But if it was not, then yet another community organization, the Friends of the South End Community Association (FOSE) was going to remind them.

FOSE did what everyone does when it sees a need for action: it formed a subcommittee, it wrote to John Bohenko and it drew the attention of the Portsmouth Herald. It also started a search for potential uses and potential tenants. When the city established a building re-use committee to look at the meetinghouse and other city properties, it was chaired by a member of the FOSE subcommittee.

On April 7, 2008, the City Council formally approved a request from FOSE to work with the City on building restoration and reuse, initiating a model neighborhood-city partnership. FOSE's three representatives played an important supporting and contributing role in the city's deliberations and decisions.

Separately FOSE also volunteered to help with groundskeeping and it is funding the painting of the storm windows as part of the ongoing repainting of the building.

In June 2009, the City Council approved the use of Urban Development Action Grant funds for protecting the shell of the building, including the slate roof. On September 4, 2009, Charters Brothers Construction was issued a "Notice to Proceed" after competitively bidding against five other firms.

As work proceeded, once again hidden structural damage to the posts supporting the bell tower necessitated its removal and reconstruction. The job is not over, but the shell is now secure for another generation, whatever it may bring.

By David Ewing © 2010. All rights reserved.

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