Restoring meetinghouse a blow to Quaker budget

November 12, 1990|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Correspondent

EASTON -- When restoring Maryland's oldest known building, you're sure to find some of Maryland's oldest known termite damage.

The termites at the 306-year-old Third Haven Society of Friends meetinghouse in Easton had chewed a big hole in the fabric of Maryland's colonial history before carpenter Tim Colclough began restoring the building a year ago.

Now the restoration work has chewed a big hole in the bank accounts of a committed group of Eastern Shore Quakers trying to save the structure.

The work, originally estimated to cost $115,000, has piled up bills of $323,651. The total cost is now put at $400,000 or more.

That's certainly not cheap for a 32-by-60 foot wood-sided building with no heat, electricity or running water that is used by the 112-member Quaker meeting only in summer.

But preserving every historic post and beam possible is worth it, say those involved.

"It's one of those very rare buildings that when you enter it, you really feel you have been transported into the colonial era," said Orlando Ridout V, chief of research for the Maryland Historical Trust, which is overseeing the project.

"It is a landmark of national significance, both for its architectural qualities and for the historical associations with the legacy of the Quaker religion in the Chesapeake," Mr. Ridout said. "Half of what we know about 17th century building in Maryland is based on it."

William L. Lane, a member of the Quaker meeting and maker of 18th century reproduction furniture, spends part of every day documenting the restoration with photos.

"There's no doubt in my mind it will be done, but how we'll end up paying for it I don't know," Mr. Lane said. "We're into it now so deep we can't get out."

The meetinghouse was built between 1682 and 1684 on the banks of Tred Avon Creek. A committee of Quakers, who paid the builder in tobacco, called for "Strong Substantiall Framed work with good white oak ground Sills and posts with girders," hTC and apparently got what they asked for.

In 1708, the Quakers appointed a committee to consider tearing down the meetinghouse. They decided not to and, 282 years later, "there's no reason to second-guess them," Mr. Ridout said. "It's been in continuous use the entire time."

The meetinghouse was expanded in 1797, when the roof took on its present saltbox look. Since then, it's hardly been touched until now. The

original longleaf pine paneling inside has never even received a coat of paint.

Set amid a 7-acre grove of oaks and maples in the heart of Easton, the meetinghouse is an island of tranquillity that seems tied directly to the past, Quakers say. William Penn worshiped there, as did many of the current members' ancestors.

"I've always thought that little house is the most special place in the whole world," said Betty Jean Wheeler, who has gone to the Quaker "quiet meeting" there since childhood. Five generations of her family are buried in the church graveyard.

"There is a feeling of total peace and serenity. When you're in there sitting with people, you feel as though you're one with them," Mrs. Wheeler said.

Frank Zeigler, president of the Third Haven trustees, said Quakers from all over the country come to visit the meetinghouse and join a meditative hour of worship in which "if four or five people speak, that's a lot of activity."

Mr. Colclough, foreman with Westwind Construction, the Chestertown firm that is doing the restoration, has come to know and appreciate every inch of the meetinghouse.

"There's beauty in its simplicity and in its sturdiness," the 34-year-old Baltimorean said. "It gives you a real foothold in the colonies. It's a good example of an established craft when life was so damn hard."

Mr. Colclough has also jumped hundreds of hurdles, big and small, to shore up the structure while preserving as much as possible.

"Based on architects' and engineers' assumptions, we thought only X, Y and Z had to be done to the building," he said. "When we got here, we found out we had to do the whole alphabet."

Many of the meetinghouse's structural parts -- massive oak beams and posts -- had become freeways for termites and other insects that literally turned them into shells of themselves.

"Every time you turn around, something else has bugs in it," Mr. Colclough said.

The pests turned beams into three-sided troughs that carpenters have had to scrape out and fill with epoxy -- at a cost to the meeting of $44,000. One 12-foot beam alone took two weeks of work to restore after the historical trust insisted it be saved, Mr. Colclough said.

By carefully stripping off the meetinghouse's white pine siding and working from the outside in, the carpenters have managed to mask the 20th century improvements to the 17th century building.

"When you stand in the room, you have no idea that only the outer inch of what you see is from the 1680s," Mr. Ridout said. "It's sophisticated, very difficult carpentry. Anyone who didn't take pride in his work would have butchered it and run."

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