BELLOWS FALLS — The Parable of the Sower of Seed is one of the remaining glories of what was once the Methodist Meeting House on Atkinson Street.
But the stained glass window, like the church building itself, has seen its glory diminished to the point of destruction.
The Rockingham Historic Preservation Commission toured the dilapidated building Monday, a first step toward coming up with a salvage plan by next week for the Rockingham Select Board.
The Select Board approved a demolition contract for the building two weeks ago, and Hodgkins & Sons is expected to start work in about a month.
The stained glass window is the most obvious reminder of the second oldest church in Bellows Falls, but it hasn’t been a house of worship for about 80 years, said Walter Wallace, the town’s historic preservation coordinator.
Wallace is doing research into the building, which was built in 1835 and underwent an ambitious renovation in 1880 by the growing Methodist congregation. They raised the sanctuary to the second floor and added a ground floor meeting space. It was then that the stained glass windows were added, Wallace said, and the steeple was remodeled to how it is now.
The stained glass windows in the sanctuary were sold off long ago, but the large Parable of the Sower remained. The window portrays the allegory about the Christian Kingdom of God, with the man representing God, sowing the seeds of his message.
In the window are birds eating the seeds, and some seeds are falling on stones, and others on fertile ground, Wallace explained.
The window does have damage: there are several pieces missing from the man’s robe, and there is a bullet hole as well.
Wallace said urban legend in Bellows Falls was that the window was a Tiffany, but that isn’t true. He said his research and consulting with Vermont state historic preservation experts pushed him in the direction of a famed New York City firm, J & R Lamb Studio, whose archives were recently donated to the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress. The Lamb Studio still exists in a New Jersey suburb.
Wallace said he has made a request to see if there is documentation about The Sower window in the Lamb archives.
“Is this a Lamb window? I don’t know, but I’m researching it,” Wallace said. The Sower window follows “the artistic grammar” of other Lamb windows. “It looks quite plausible,” he said. Lamb made stained glass windows from 1822 until 1990s, he said. The company made windows for churches, synagogues, other houses of worship and public buildings.
Wallace said the town received an offer from someone who restores stained glass windows, but he said the offer was premature until the town decides how to handle it. He said the window could be restored and sold.
The Methodist congregation abandoned the church in 1936, and it was sold in 1941 to Fall Mountain Grange, which in turn stayed there for 30 years until it was sold in 1971 to the YMCA. The YMCA left the building in 2015, he said.
Wallace is very interested in the old-growth timber that the meeting house was built with — whether it is long beams, two by fours, or floor boards.
When the committee entered the sanctuary, pigeons flew up to the rafters and feathers littered the floor. There were holes in the roof, and the damage was extensive.
Wallace said in a follow-up interview that he believes the building could collapse, given the vibration from the truck traffic on Atkinson Street.
Rockingham Select Board member Elijah Zimmer, who is also a member of the historic preservation committee, said while he voted in favor of the demolition contract, he remains convinced the building could be saved.
Zimmer said 10 years ago, when he was living in the village of Gaysville in the town of Stockbridge, he worked on the restoration of a similar church. It took about $180,000 to repair the building, which was also suffering from failed beams and bulging walls.
“It was the same size as this, it had the same decay in the rafters and beams. It could be cut away and spliced,” said Zimmer.
“The damage has already been done. If it had been repaired in a timely fashion....” he said. He pointed out the stenciled walls, which were emerging as the paint flaked off.
“We want to salvage as much as possible,” said Zimmer.
Zimmer loves old buildings, and in his heart of hearts wants to save the old Methodist Meeting House, but he acknowledged the time to save it has passed. There is no money for such a large undertaking, he said. “It’s too big a project for the town to take on,” he said.
The Methodist meeting house, which most recently housed the Meeting Waters YMCA, became the property of the town this summer, after current owner Christopher Glennon turned it over to the town in lieu of taxes. Glennon had bought the building from the YMCA for $1, with hopes of restoring it and turning it into a community arts center.
Zimmer, who was also on the tour, said he would really like to find a way to save the steeple, which he said is structurally sound, despite its surface dilapidation of its shingle covering.
Wallace said his top priority for saving is first the Sower window, second the timber already cleaned and saved, the large beams and finally the steeple.
Any of the old-growth timber and the extra-long beams can be used in any future restoration work needed at the Rockingham Meeting House. He said he was told about 30 years ago that a 56-foot-long beam for a sill plate was needed for the meeting house, and it had to be trucked in from the West Coast at great expense.
He estimated saving the steeple would cost upwards of $15,000, and then the town would have to find a place to store it.
Wallace said he would be documenting the meeting house building thanks to a special application on his iPhone: LiDAR.
He said the laser-based technology can measure the building, and then upload all the information into a data cloud, that in turn can produce drawings detailing the church, for future historians.