Bats in the belfry: Historic Bell Meetinghouse gets a facelift

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OTISFIELD — The ceiling is coming down at the historic 1839 Bell Meetinghouse on Bell Hill.

The $70,000 project that is being undertaken by the Bell Hill Meetinghouse Association will remove a decades old ceiling and uncover and restore the original lathe and plaster ceiling.

This week, an 11-foot-tall rolling platform was erected over the pews in the sanctuary to bring the demolition crew and later the plasterer to within six feet of the 2,000 square-foot curved ceiling.

“It puts the plasterers up close enough to the ceiling to plaster. Sort of like Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel,” Callie Zilinsky, president of the Bell Hill Meetinghouse Association, said. The nonprofit group was established in 1927 to maintain the meetinghouse and the nearby one-room brick schoolhouse on Bell Hill in Otisfield.

Both buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Ken Bartow, clerk of the works for the Bell Hill Meetinghouse ceiling project, stands in the belfry of the meetinghouse looking at the 1860 bell made by Meneely's Bell Foundry in West Troy, N.Y.
Ken Bartow, clerk of the works for the Bell Hill Meetinghouse ceiling project, stands in the belfry of the meetinghouse looking at the 1860 bell made by Meneely’s Bell Foundry in West Troy, N.Y.

Ken Bartow, project clerk of the works, said the ceiling was damaged by reoccurring leaks in the roof believed to have started when the belfry was hit by lighting in 1924.

Information from Howard Dyer, who died several years ago at the age of 102 and was a walking encyclopedia of information for the town, was used to establish the timeline of the damage and the attempts to fix it.

“He had an amazing memory,” Bartow said.

Dyer recalled in a 2006 interview that lighting struck the steeple in July 1924, shattering the carrying beam that helped hold up the northeast side of the steeple. The damage, however, was not discovered for several weeks. The belfry, which held the 1860 Meneely Foundry bell, was framed for about $250 to keep it from sagging. In 1946, Dyer recalled, a short chimney that hadn’t been used in years and was considered the cause of roof leaks was taken down.

Bartow said Grover and his crew of Lloyd Grover & Sons Inc. in Otisfield began working on the platform this week to remove the Homasote ceiling — a fibrous material that has been attached in 4-foot-by-8-foot framed panels. Under the Homasote is the original lathe and plaster ceiling.

The demolition crew has also braced sheets of particle board along the edge of the temporary floor to prevent anything from falling down into the sanctuary during the work, Bartow said.

The platform also creates a six-foot high work space that will be heated by an electric heater and solar heat from opening the shutters of the large windows. The heat will help plasterer Peter Lord of Plastic & Paint in Limington to successfully restore the ceiling.

The Federal/Greek Revival style meetinghouse, designed and built by local master carpenter Nathan Nutting Jr., has not been used for church services on a regular basis since the late 19th century when parishioners abandoned it and moved to a church in Spurrs Corner.

The one-room school building served as a district school for the town of Otisfield until about 1940. The Bell Hill Association acquired it in 1950.

In 1927, residents interested in historic preservation came together to form an association dedicated to preserving both buildings that were built in 1839.

The association has raised $70,000 from member contributions, fundraising efforts and a particularly large contribution from an anonymous person, Zalinsky said.

The work is expected to be completed this spring in time for the building’s first wedding event in June.

The meetinghouse is rented out for weddings, as a music venue and for other functions. Each summer the association holds a public service in the sanctuary that they say honors God, country and tradition. The tradition started in 1913 when the residents of Bell Hill and their friends initiated the first service after the Congregationalists moved their Sunday worship to a newer building at Spurrs Corner in the 1880s, leaving the meetinghouse on Bell Hill vacant.

ldixon@sunmediagroup.net