Plaster restoration project looms at Meeting House

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ROCKINGHAM — Rockingham's historic preservation coordinator Susan Reing came prepared with some show-and-tell Tuesday night.

But Reing didn't have to pull the broken pieces of historic plaster out of a brown paper bag to convince the Rockingham Select Board to establish a policy making sure any contributions or donations to the meeting house go into a separate and dedicated fund for the meeting house, rather than end up in the general fund.

In addition, the select board agreed to put any money left over from the building's annual maintenance budget into its new capital reserve fund.

Rockingham Town Meeting voters in March established for the first time a meeting house reserve fund, and funded it with $20,000.

The 1787 building, which is considered the oldest public building in Vermont that hasn't been altered, is facing expensive repairs in its future. The lion's share of needed work is to its plaster, according to John Leppman, who is both chairman of the Rockingham Historic Preservation Commission and president of the Rockingham Meeting House Association, a private, non-profit group that advocates for the building.

Leppman said Friday that pieces of plaster recently fell from the balcony ceiling, and would be relatively easy to fix.

Reing said earlier in the week that the plaster had fallen just before the annual pilgrimage in August.

"We're not really staying ahead" of the building's maintenance, she said.

"Now people will know their money is going into the capital reserve fund," she said.

While the meeting house has been designated a national historic site, it is the town's responsibility to pay for any repairs, Leppman noted. And keeping up the 225-year-old building is expensive.

Leppman said while one estimate puts the plaster repair at about $100,000, he thinks the estimate "is a bit thin." Rockingham Development Director Gary Fox said earlier that he heard estimates that the plaster repair could cost at least $110,000.

Because the ceiling in the meeting house is two stories tall, scaffolding would have to be erected for any specialty plaster work, which he said was the majority of the high cost. The existing plaster would be repaired, and not replaced.

According to an evaluation by Keefe & Wesner Architects, PC of North Bennington, the plaster repair could range from $75,000 to $100,000, along with about $10,000 in other repairs. Architect Mark Wesner ranked doing a plaster assessment as one of the high priorities of various repairs needed at the meeting house, and that the phased plaster restoration was of a medium priority.

While establishing the account for donations seemed a bit premature to some, Rockingham Select Board Chairwoman Susan Hammond said it was a good move. She said when she was fundraising for the new Bartonsville Covered Bridge, which was swept away by Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011, not all the funds were used and the balance of the privately-raised funds ended up in the general fund.

Town Manager Wendy Harrison said while the meeting house generated some income from rental of the building, along with the sale of books and postcards and donations, this year's $13,000 budget didn't cover its annual expenses of $15,000.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.

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