ROCKINGHAM, Vt. – On Tuesday, Dec. 6, the Rockingham Selectboard discussed the Rockingham Meeting House (RMH) draft conditions assessment with Historic Preservation Consultant Lyssa Papazian, Certified League of Government (CLG) coordinator Walter Wallace, and Rockingham Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) Chair John Leppman.
Leppman said the meeting house belongs to the town, and at 235 years old, there “is no surprise that it has fairly significant structural concerns that need to be addressed.”
Wallace said in early August the team of Papazian, Structural Engineer Bob Neeld of Engineering Ventures, and Arnold & Scangas Architects were hired to assess the building structure with support from the selectboard reserve fund and additional funding provided by the State of Vermont Division of Historic Preservation, Preservation Trust of Vermont (PTV), and private donations.
Papazian said they are still processing a “huge amount of data” and the full structure report would be released in the spring. They created an electronic scan giving floor plans with actual measurements, mapping, assessments, and a 3D virtual tour for portions of the balcony and under the floor.
Papazian described the damage, which included rot on the southwest corner under the clapboards, unpainted boards, open seams, missing flashing, damp and frost-susceptible soils, poor drainage, deteriorated sashes, dry and sun-damaged interior wood, missing supports, and plaster issues.
Neeld gave Archaeologist Tom Jamison’s report on foundation exploration and soil testing. There is granite 14-18 inches deep and 10 inches of stone rubble upon native material, a mix of silt and clay. He said the soil is frost-susceptible and the stone movement is thought to have caused the heaving and settling. Neeld said they found high moisture content on some of the floor frames where soil made contact with the wood. He explained that the broken windows in the balcony most likely occurred due to exterior wall movement.
Papazian presented the report recommendations at a total project cost of just over $1,000,000.
They gave two options for the building foundation, a new foundation under the existing one, and second, a shallow frost-protected foundation. The first would involve moving a number of current stones and lifting the building to gain access to reinforce and replace the footings. The second would also involve lifting, using insulation to provide frost protection. Papazian noted there were concerns with the second option about access to the interior footing and timbers for inspection and that it may require exterior excavation.
Papazian explained that 15% of clapboards would need replacing, and the hand-planed boards would be replaced in-kind. They suggested metal handrails for code, and exterior painting should involve the proper preparation of primer and two coats. The slate roof issues included drainage and replacing flashing.
Window restorer Sally A. Fishburn assessed the windows; eight were replaced in 1981 and two had been recently restored. Fishburn recommended restoration if possible to preserve the original material because reproduction would ensure the loss of integrity for the building.
Papazian said portions of the plaster were restored in 2011 and 2020. She said 58% has been conserved only to the preservation level which still shows the holes. Photographs showed historic “graffiti on the walls” under whitewash dated from 1906. She said there were pieces delaminating and falling and she said, “the main ceiling was never done.” Papazian said they recommended additional funding for a full restoration of adhering, filling holes, and feathering for the whitewash treatment.
A pew assessment study was done in 2005 by Chris Cole, but Papazian said many of his recommendations were not done. She noted many benches were undersupported and the interior wood is fairly dry and they recommended adding moisture with wax, sanding, and sealing the floor.
Papazian said for minimum code compliance they recommended adding signs and emergency lighting. They suggested a fire detection and alarm system and the removal of one pew and a new ramp for ADA access.
Papazian suggests a balance of preservation and maintaining integrity. She said too much change can really “undermine your ability to raise money; its importance is it’s not changing.” The recommendation is for preservation and restoration in order to protect this investment.
Board member Rick Cowan asked Wallace what uses were planned for the meeting house. Wallace said that historically it’s been used for weddings, memorials, music events, and Sunday fundraisers. The Roots on the River festival attracted 300 people on Fred Eaglesmith’s last appearance in 2013, ending in 2019. Wallace said last year, the RMH hosted two weddings, both with 50-80 attendees. This fall, they had high attendance for the Rockingham Old House Awards.
Leppman said there was no fix that preserves the integrity of the balcony for use, suggesting it might be appropriate for a photographer, but the balcony would be extremely limited. Wallace said the balcony was closed in 2019 after plaster starting falling.
Annette Spaulding, a commissioner on the HPC said, “The building is so important…it’s the foundation of our community.”
Wallace agreed it is an extraordinary cost and explained there are programs that support preservation work through the National Park Service and Rockingham has requested and been approved for congressional spending through Bernie Sanders office for $360,000. He said the Save America’s Treasures (SAT) grant program started in the 1990s to help save National Historic Landmarks and awards up to $750,000. Wallace said the town is looking at how best to approach the application with its required 1:1 match. They have the support of PTV and the Division of HP, but there needs to be a strong effort to match these funds.
Wallace said, “if we are to preserve and conserve the building for our children and grandchildren; there are severe issues…we need to creatively address the need to stabilize from the ground up.”
Development Director Gary Fox asked if the final report will indicate a recommended sequence; what to start first and what items would be in jeopardy if not repaired when recommended. Papazian said the final report would give this information. Interested viewers can see the draft with cost breakdowns and take the virtual tour of the Rockingham Meeting House at www.rockinghamvt.org/historic-preservation-commission
The Rockingham Selectboard meetings are on the first and third Tuesdays of each month at 6 p.m. in the Lower Theater of the Bellows Falls Opera House, open to the public and available by Zoom.