A nonprofit’s efforts preserve the Historic Methodist Church
by: Joshua H. Balling
On the evening of July 13, 1846, a faulty stovepipe in a hat store on Main Street ignited the Great Fire, and it swept through downtown Nantucket without discrimination, its flames consuming nearly everything in its path. More than 250 shops, homes, warehouses and factories were reduced to ashes by the roaring flames.
Other buildings were intentionally dynamited in an attempt to create firebreaks to prevent the conflagration’s further spread. There was talk of destroying the Methodist Church at the top of Main Street for just that purpose. Legend has it that Maria Mitchell, who would become famous just a year later for discovering a comet from the roof of the neighboring Pacific Bank, stood on the steps of the church, beseeching those battling the fire – and maybe even chaining herself to the doors – in an attempt to prevent the majestic building’s destruction.
Folklore? Perhaps. But what’s known for a fact is that the wind fortuitously shifted, and the church, erected 23 years earlier and renovated in 1840 in the Greek Revival style with soaring columns and a pitched roof, was saved. It was the only wooden structure downtown to survive. It thrived over the next several decades, as political rallies and public meetings in addition to worship services were held in its cavernous main sanctuary. It hosted concerts and theatrical plays, which continue within its walls to this day.
But over the next 100 years or so, time was not kind to the stately building. While sporadic maintenance was performed, and the structure itself became an enduring icon on the downtown skyline, the size of the congregation ebbed and flowed, and by the end of the 20th century, it was one of the smallest churches on the island, unable to afford much of the necessary upkeep.
Work in the 1930s and the early 1960s to expand the basement had compromised the foundation, causing the walls to bow and the foundation to settle. Inside, chunks of plaster were missing and there were cracks in the walls. Outside, much of the trim was rotted. By the mid-1990s, the structure was in serious danger. Something needed to be done. Efforts had been made over the years to undertake major restoration projects, but the support just didn’t seem to be there.
“Frank was a huge man, with a booming minister’s voice, and he got up in front of everybody, all eight of us, in the main hall, and said that as long as he was alive, he wasn’t going to lose this building. It was hard not to agree with him,” Morrison recalled.
“But early on, a lot of people didn’t want to donate to save the building, because that meant donating to a particular religious organization. That was it in a nutshell, when the eureka moment came, to form an independent organization, giving every one of the stakeholders a vote in the process,” said Morrison, who now lives in Texas. He came up with the idea of forming a non-secular nonprofit to raise money for the work.
With assistance from the late Nancy Nelson, the church’s minister at the time, and several others committed to preserving the building, Morrison in 1995 formed the group that became Two Centre Street Restoration Project, Inc.
“The Two Centre Street project was a last-ditch effort, a ‘Jump the Shark’ exercise, to bring attention to the building’s value as a community space,” Morrison said. “It was an exercise in defusing the politics of long-held notions and impressions that only a fresh pair of eyes and a new, independent group – but no less passionate – could bring to saving the building. That is how the Two Centre Street Restoration Project was forged. It was a community 501(c)3 organization independent of any one building interest-holder, but which could communicate and raise funds for the building’s restoration, for the good of Nantucket and Massachusetts.”
Work began almost immediately to raise money and address the building’s most pressing need: shoring up those sections of the foundation that had been undermined by the basement work in the mid-20th century. Additional work in the first phase of the project included replacing the column supports at the front of the building, removing the brick structures that, without footings, had sunk into the ground and caused substantial shifting of the columns and the roof, rebuilding the columns and piers, restoring the rotting exterior wood trim, and restoring the windows.
Early supporters and among the first to contribute were prominent architect and summer resident Graham Gund – who sat on the group’s founding board of directors – and Jean MacAusland, former publisher of Gourmet magazine and founder of the Nantucket Daffodil Festival over 40 years ago, as she envisioned “millions of daffodils blooming on Nantucket in the spring.” Early contributions also came from the Massachusetts Historical Commission, on the condition that a deed restriction be placed on the building to ensure it remain unchanged. Many smaller contributions from across the community also began to arrive.
Nelson was key in spreading the word across Nantucket, from year-round islanders to affluent summer residents, said Inquirer and Mirror and Nantucket Today editor and publisher Marianne Stanton, an early member of the group’s board. Stanton, former president and current vice president of the Two Centre group, was instrumental in bringing former first Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to the church, where she declared it one of “America’s Treasures” during a visit in 1999.
“Nancy was hugely important in reaching out to people in the community. People loved Nancy, and she was part of the island’s social fabric. She grew up on Lincoln Circle, and her father was an executive with Gulf+Western,” said Stanton, whose family’s Methodist Church connections stretch back generations. Her grandmother, Zenna Giffin, played the organ there for 50 years and her great-grandfather, master carpenter Thomas Hayden Giffin, did much of the work rebuilding the performance center as a worship space in the 1930s and 1940s.
Creating the nonprofit was the spark the effort needed, and fundraising began in earnest though outreach and a number of events, including a concert by troubadour Bill Schustik, a play about Maria Mitchell by Maggie Conroy, and later a concert by Livingston Taylor. Morrison even used his connections with NASA to bring in a real moon rock as a fundraising opportunity.
“The idea was yes, while it was very important to retain the main sanctuary as a worship space, it was also a performance space, and a community space,” Stanton said. “We need communities, not just communities of faith, to help preserve these historic buildings, these beautiful island churches. Can you imagine the view of the town skyline without the Unitarian Church, the Methodist Church, the Congregational Church, these big buildings? Beyond the communities of faith they serve, they are part of the fabric of town, of the island's architectural fabric.”
A better understanding of the Methodist Church’s plight truly began to grow when the nonprofit brought in Regina Binder of Provincetown’s Binder Boland & Associates, who performed an architectural survey and worked to have the building included among Massachusetts’ most endangered historic structures. Once word got out, pitching the preservation project became easier, Morrison said.
“What got potential supporters really excited about the project was taking them up to the building’s attic, above the main hall, and pointing out the mortise and tenon construction of the rafters assembled by the original builders, and the burnt and singe marks left on the original roof – covered by the later facade modification – by the Great Fire of Nantucket over 160 years ago,” he said.
“Reciting the legend of Maria Mitchell standing on the porch during the fire, shouting ‘You will not take this building down!’ as the brigades attempted to build a firebreak along Centre Street, pointing out those artifacts, the history and legends behind them, always brought a sense of the past to the present and was instrumental in saving the building and getting it on the Massachusetts Ten Most Endangered Buildings’ list. That brought a wider recognition to the project.”
So did Clinton’s declaration. Stanton’s husband John, a documentary filmmaker, had produced a short film about the restoration work. Upon learning that the Clintons were planning to visit the island for a fundraiser at the Eel Point home of ambassador Elizabeth Bagley, Stanton approached Bagley, gave her a copy of the film and asked if she would extend an invitation to the first lady, a Methodist, to visit the church. On Aug. 20, 1999, she did.
“I have traveled across the country with the Save America’s Treasures program, to bring attention to the historic places that capture the history of this nation, from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow House in Cambridge to the ancient cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, Colo.," Clinton said Aug. 20, 1999, standing at the pulpit. "Many of this nation's great sites and collections are deteriorating before our very eyes . . . We've learned that more than paper or wood, or bricks and mortar stand at risk when we allow these places to fade away. Our collective memory and community are at risk of crumbling as well. To be a nation in the new millennium, we must safeguard what it means to all of us to be Americans."
Island attorney Emily Stover helped craft the preservation restriction, recorded in 1998 and held by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, that will forever ensure the church's architectural, historical and archeological integrity. The restriction prohibits any alteration of the facade, the main sanctuary or upper floors of the church, which is listed on the state Register of Historic Places, and as a contributing structure to the island’s National Register Historic District.
It has been key in preserving not only the architecture of the church, but its purpose.
“It’s a beautiful building, but we don’t own it. It’s owned by the mother church. Having that preservation restriction is crucial. The temptation in a hot real-estate market to sell could be too much, but there would be limited economic benefit now,” Stanton said. “Twice there’s been a move to sell the building: once in the early 1900s, and again later, talk of turning it into shops. You see a lot of that on the mainland, retail space or a restaurant in former churches. A previous minister was even actively talking to the congregation about turning it into office space. But this group feels it’s important to maintain its status as place of workship, as a
performance space, and a venue for the public to meet,” Stanton said.
“Shops inside? Can you imagine that? It’s crazy. From the outset, the intent was always that it remain as it was, from the ax-hewn beams in the basement to the hip roof with all the burn marks from the Great Fire. It gives you chills.”
Once the building was stabilized, a second phase of work began to fit it with a fire-suppression system that involved completely rewiring the church and hooking into the town water system; repairing the roof; restoring the interior of the building; and restoring the historic Appleton organ, one of only five known remaining organs by Thomas Appleton, built in Boston in 1831 and acquired by the church in 1859.
“The fire-suppression system was critical – and costly,” said John Belash, a retired attorney and the current board president. “This building is hugely important to the downtown in more ways than one. Think about it. Guess who benefits from our fire-suppression system if that building goes up in flames? Everyone.”
In total since its formation, the Two Centre Street Restoration Project has raised nearly $3 million for its work, with major contributions in recent years coming from the Nantucket Community Preservation Committee, Tupancy-Harris Foundation and Wendy and Eric Schmidt’s Schmidt Family Foundation.
Today, the church is home to not only the Methodist congregation, but the island’s Seventh Day Adventists and the Foursquare Gospel Church, a Brazilian pentecostal congregation. Theatre Workshop of Nantucket leases its lower level for theatrical productions. But the congregation remains small, and is largely unable to pay for the ongoing work that never seems to end.
Next up is a major painting project – expected to cost over $300,000 – the group is hopeful can begin this fall. It’s an intensive endeavor, complicated not only by the need to hire an off-island scaffolding contractor, but also to safely remediate lead paint. Then there are the time constraints. Given the island’s climate, the only appropriate time to do the painting is a month or two in the fall.
And there’s always the cost.
“There is no money from the congregation. It’s a small group, and it doesn’t come from the monied part of the island,” Belash said. “We don’t have a very wide reach into the wealthy community. But my feeling is, we have enough money in hand now to get started. If we can make a good-enough pitch to people, and say we’ve gotten this far, remind them how important the building is to the downtown, we’ll get the rest of the money. I’m optimistic about starting in the fall.”
The Two Centre Street board has always been a small but committed one, Stanton said. Belash and treasurer Jane Karakula are the glue that’s held it together in recent years, she added.
“We have never been one of those ‘sexy’ groups, the boards people join because they feel it conveys social status. But the people we’ve had are ardent about keeping the building, and John and Jane are keeping it going,” Stanton said.
For Karakula, it’s a labor of love.
“I can definitely feel the history when I’m in the building. There’s a certain timeless quality about it. On many occasions I’ve gone into the main sanctuary when no one is there and sat in a pew and gazed out the numerous huge windows. It’s so peaceful. I encourage anyone seeking a moment of solitude to pop into the Methodist Church when the doors are open,” said Karakula, whose connection to the building comes from her work with two of its resident theater companies over the years, Actors Theatre and Theatre Workshop.
“As a person completely familiar with every nook and cranny of the building, I’m really proud to be one of its stewards. I really have the most amazing memories and have made so many meaningful connections while spending 20 summers working down in the church basement. It’s really a special place for me,” she said.
HISTORY AND MYSTERY
The church was erected at 2 Centre St. in 1823, about two decades after the island’s first Methodist Church was constructed on Fair Street.
Historians believe, however, it was actually built somewhere else first, probably in the midto late 1700s, disassembled board by board, shipped to the island, and reconstructed.
The evidence, from the oak lumber common in the mid-Atlantic part of the country, to the markings on the wood seeming to indicate a reconstruction plan, to construction methods common around 1760, all points in that direction.
Preserving the church is imperative, said Rev. Scott Washington, the church’s new minister, and a North Carolina historian who is researching some interesting parallels between Nantucket’s Methodist Church and a former Anglican Church in Hillsborough, N.C. that hosted the 1788 North Carolina Constitutional Convention, the only convention that postponed ratifying the Constitution until it included a Bill of Rights. They are parallels first investigated by Roz Coleman, the wife of former interim minister Bill Coleman. Both remain avid supporters of the church’s preservation.
Much of what Washington has learned fits with what is already believed about the church’s construction. The circumstantial evidence is there, he said, but the proof has been hard to come by.
“At the end of the 18th century, the Hillsborough church was taken down, dismantled, and disappeared into the myth of history,” he said. “The description of the building itself is similar, and there is a Nantucket connection in Hillsborough, an uncle of Phineas and Kizzie (Kezia) Fanning. There’s definitely some intriguing conjecture that it might have been that building.
“We all like things that are intersections of history and mystery, and that’s definitely true of the Nantucket Methodist Church. It could have proved pivotal to why we have freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, free-
dom of worship, those freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights,” Washington continued. “There’s something about buildings like this that transcend denominations. It’s an island treasure, and a national treasure.”
WELL WORTH THE WORK
Belash would be hard pressed to argue.
“It’s more than a church. In terms of history, where else can you walk anywhere in the United States at least, and hear three or four magnificent organs within 10 minutes of each other in our churches? Where can you find buildings that on the one hand, their history is preserved, and yet each one of them in its own way in addition to the religion it represents, is actively involved in the life of the community?,” he asked.
“It’s all part of the fabric over and above the religious connection or context. The Methodist Church is an absolutely essential part of the fabric of downtown. It’s almost taken for granted. It’s there. But we shouldn’t take it for granted.”
“I could not have been in a better place or a better time than as part of the great bucket brigade, back in 19941996, that formed to save and restore that building. Not one single fireman can carry all the buckets, pump all the water, or put out all the fires. It takes a long line of passionate, creative individuals to douse the flames,” said Morrison, who left the island in 1997, but still keeps in touch with friends and follows the church’s progress.
“Nantucket has a long history of these types of projects, in maintaining its heritage, the Atheneum and the Dreamland to name two others. To be a part of the brigade that passed the Methodist Church building from the present to the future, I felt at the time – and still do – was part of the responsibility of being a Nantucketer.” ///
Joshua Balling is the associate editor of Nantucket Today and the assistant editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket's newspaper since 1821.