Who will pay for renovations?

$1 million in renovations proposed for Hancock’s historic Meetinghouse

  • Plans are under way for an extensive renovation of the Hancock Meetinghouse, including complete replacement of the slate roof. <br/><br/>(Staff photo by Dave Anderson)
  • (Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Bob Fogg of Hancock takes  time twice a week to manually wind the clock at Hancock's Meetinghouse, a job he's been dedicated to for more than 45 years. <br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • View of former Hancock Meeting House location from Hancock Meeting House bell tower. <br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Interior Hancock Meeting House. <br/><br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

HANCOCK — Towering across from the Town Common and overlooking Norway Pond, Hancock’s Meetinghouse is a centerpiece of the town, a magnet for photographers and tourists seeking iconic images of small-town New England. It’s also a building that’s used and owned, in a uncommon arrangement that dates back nearly 200 years, by both the town and the First Congregational Church of Hancock.

Now, members of a Meetinghouse Restoration Committee are proposing the largest renovation project since the building was moved from its original location to its current Main Street site in 1851. And they are also working to clarify that historic agreement between church and town, after questions about the traditional shared ownership became a focus of discussion at an informational meeting last week.

The building needs a new roof, structural improvements in the basement, and upgrades to the electrical and heating systems. The Meetinghouse Restoration Committee is recommending accessibility upgrades and exterior improvements as well. The overall cost is expected to be about $1 million.

While committee members are working on getting grants and private donations, they expect to ask voters to approve a bond request at March’s Town Meeting to fund most of the cost.

“Quite frankly, the bulk of the funding will be done through borrowing by the town,” said committee member Hunt Dowse at the Dec. 9 meeting.

Dowse said $75,000 has been pledged to date from donors, and the fundraisers are hoping to double that amount. He said the group has applied for a $130,000 LCHIP grant to pay part of the cost of replacing the building’s slate roof. Dowse said there’s a lot of demand for LCHIP money, since the state program has only recently resumed making grants.

“To get $100,000 would be wonderful,” Dowse said.

Fundraisers are also investigating other grant options, in hopes of getting an additional $75,000 to $100,000.

A shared history

The Meetinghouse was dedicated in 1820, when there was little sense of separation between church and state, and has served ever since as a location for worship services and town functions. When it was moved across on Main Street to its present location in 1851, it was divided into two floors, with the sanctuary for worship upstairs and a space for town meetings on the lower level. Since then, the town has shared responsibility for the building with the members of the First Congregational Church, which is now affiliated with the United Church of Christ. The church maintains the upper floor and two small offices on the lower floor, while the town maintains the portion of the lower floor that once served as a town meeting space and for many years housed a preschool program. The town and the church have traditionally shared the cost of exterior maintenance. The building has separate furnaces and electrical systems for each floor.

At the Dec. 9 meeting, committee member Jarvis Coffin said most people in town, regardless of their religious background, embrace the idea of the Meetinghouse as being a central focus of the town, a building that’s used for much more than just church activities.

“When this building was put up, there was no separation of church and state,” Coffin said. “Now, we’re a very diverse culture. We’re all not Congregationalists today.”

Coffin said it is appropriate that most of the funding for the project come from the town.

“This building is still relevant,” Coffin said. “It’s still the town’s building.”

Residents David Bedard and Steve Froling wanted more detail.

“Who owns the building?” Froling asked.

“If the building were to be sold, what would be the share for the town?” asked Bedard. “If you don’t know the answer, you can’t know the split on who is responsible, plain and simple.”

No one from the committee had a quick answer to those questions. Select Board Chair John Jordan said a clear deed for the building doesn’t exist and costs have always been shared.

Coffin said the church has about 100 people who attend and isn’t large enough to provide a significant amount of money for the project.

“The reality is, we have to resolve this building as a town institution,” he said. “It’s going to be up to us as a town.”

“I can’t imagine any of us not wanting to have this building here,” said George Kidd, who noted that he is a member of the church. “This building belongs to the town. To save it, we all have to pay for it.”

Rich LeFebvre said the building has to be restored, but asking taxpayers to pay 80 percent might not be fair.

“I would propose that the town pay 50 percent,” LeFebvre said. “As a community, we can come up with the other half. In the end, we don’t fight with each other. We help each other.”

Cost estimates

At the meeting, Dave Drasba, a Hancock architect who serves on the Meetinghouse Committee, provided a breakdown of what each portion of the project might cost.

The most expensive item is replacement of the slate roof, including repairs to the deck, new slate and copper flashing, and removal of two chimneys that are no longer needed, at a cost of $233,000.

Drasba said slate is historically appropriate for the building and can be expected to last for as long as 100 years. Bedard asked if the committee had looked into other alternatives and said a cost analysis should be done. Drasba said the LCHIP funding was contingent on using slate.

Exterior work — restoration of windows, new storm windows, weather-stripping and adjustment of doors and a complete exterior paint job — is estimated to cost $200,000.

Structural work to repair footings, posts, foundation walls and an attic truss is expected to cost $110,000.

A new heating system, electrical system upgrades and fire alarm system are estimated at $176,000.

The proposal calls for converting an area now used for one of the church offices, putting in handicapped accessible toilets and a platform lift to link the two floors. A ramp would also be built to provide handicap access to the meeting area at the back of the first floor, which is now two steps down from the entry area. The cost of those items is estimated at $91,000.

Replacing the current outside fire escape with an addition to hold an enclosed stairway as the emergency exit is estimated at $114,000.

Improvements to the first-floor meeting area, including a small kitchen, are estimated at $119,000. Committee members have said the first floor, which has a small stage, could be used for various types of meetings and performances. The first floor was where the annual Town Meetings were once held, although those now take place at the fire station, which can hold more people and has more parking spaces.

After adding in a 10 percent contingency fee, the overall cost estimate is $1,143,000. But Drasba said when the parts of the project are put out to bid, (which would be done through the The MacMillin Company of Keene, which is serving as project manager), the cost could be lower.

“I believe we can get that bottom number to $1 million,” he said.

What’s next

Committee members agreed to do research on the ownership issue prior to the next meeting on the project, which is expected to be held in late January.

That meeting may be a public hearing to discuss a possible bond issue, although exactly how much voters would be asked to approve is unclear. Kurt Grassett, the town’s director of public works and a member of the Meetinghouse Committee, said the group would have more detailed financial projections on the cost of the project and Drasba said the intent is to be able to give residents information about the impact of a bond issue on the town’s tax rate.

Dave Anderson can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 233 or danderson@ledgertranscript.com. He’s on Twitter at @DaveAndersonMLT.

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