Durham campaign aims to save old Town Hall

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DURHAM — The Durham Historical Society is planning a fundraising campaign to preserve the Union Church, or old Town Hall, at 744 Royalsborough Road.

Tia Wilson, secretary of the society, said the building’s foundation is the major concern at the moment. Over the years, what once was open yard behind former church has slowly eroded and is now a steep, wooded pitch sloping down to the bank of the Androscoggin River.

“In the back there used to be a lot more land, but over time it’s washed away,” Wilson said. “The building is very slowly going off the back of the hill. … The river gets high and it continues to erode the soil away.”

A $10,000 transfer from the Municipal Buildings Reserve Account to the Restoration Fund – designated solely for the maintenance and restoration of the Union Church – was approved at Town Meeting April 7. The fund balance after the transfer is just under $67,000, according to Kevin Nadeau, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.

Built in 1835 as a multi-denominational church, the building was used as a church until the early 20th century before being abandoned and later deeded to the town in 1922. After five years of renovations, including turning two separate entrances – one for women and one for men – into one entrance, the building served as a town hall from 1927 until 1986.

The town still owns the building, but now instead of housing services or Board of Selectmen meetings, it is home to the historical society. Inside, the first floor is full of artifacts, including clothing, books, a loom and kitchenware.

Some even say it’s home to a ghost or two.

“I sat in here scanning documents one day all by myself and I heard what sounded like a giggle of a child and I’ve also heard a man clearing his throat,” Wilson said, noting others in the society have had similar experiences.

In 2001, the church was added to the National Register of Historic Places, deemed worthy of preservation for its historical significance. But like the artifacts inside it, the structure is aging.

Wilson said the hope is to build up some of the property behind the church and build a retaining wall to prevent further erosion.

“This building probably won’t go anywhere in our lifetime, but if we don’t do something now to fix the foundation, we’ll lose it,” Wilson said. She’d also like to see the town add a vapor barrier to the basement to keep moisture from coming up through the floors and damaging archives.

Although Nadeau said there is no formalized bid process yet, the society has gathered a few quotes from contractors that place the project cost around $100,000.

Now, they’re brainstorming how to raise the additional $33,000 needed.

Last year, Wilson said, $1,000 was raised by offering two bus tours through Durham, which stopped at historic points along the way. She served as the tour guide and even created a book of the town’s history for attendees.

Both tours sold out last year, so this year, Wilson said, the society hopes to increase the admission price and hold a tour once a month throughout the summer. They also plan to hold a book sale of literature in the society’s collection that doesn’t pertain to Durham. A Go Fund Me page would be created for the effort.

“Any fundraising we do will help supplement town funds … We just really want to help and see this building be here for another 200 years,” Wilson said. “We don’t want another building becoming abandoned.”

While other parts of the structure need repair, such as the windows and ceiling, they’re much less urgent than the foundation.

“The short-term goal is to get the foundation work done and stabilize the building,” Nadeau said. Beyond that there is more work to be done, including “determining what the town’s long-term vision for the building is, how the funds will be raised, and how the building will be sustained once renovated without becoming a burden to taxpayers.”

Timing of the project, Nadeau said, depends on when funds are raised.

“We’ve offered to help and do whatever we can,” Wilson said. “This is our home and we want to see the Historical Society remain in this building, even if it takes years.”

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

Tia Wilson, secretary of the Durham Historical Society, outside the society’s headquarters, the Union Church or old Town Hall, at 744 Royalsborough Road.

Durham Historical Society hopes to raise funds required to repair the church’s foundation and build a retaining wall behind it to prevent erosion. The town has about $67,000 in a restoration fund designated for the building.

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