Meeting will decide fate of historic Voluntown church

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Voluntown - posted Mon., Aug. 12, 2013
The fate of the deteriorating Voluntown Methodist Church building hinges on an Aug. 21 community meeting. Photo by Janice Steinhagen.
The fate of the deteriorating Voluntown Methodist Church building hinges on an Aug. 21 community meeting. Photo by Janice Steinhagen.

History buffs and local preservationists hope that giving local residents a peek inside the deteriorating Voluntown Methodist Church building will spark enough community interest and support to save the 170-year-old structure from the wrecking ball.

The Voluntown Historical Meetinghouse Society will conduct guided tours of the church building from 4 to 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 21. Immediately following at 6:30 p.m., the group will conduct a public meeting at Voluntown Elementary School to determine whether there is enough public support to pursue the restoration necessary to make the structure safe.

Ty Cool, treasurer of the VHMS and a Voluntown Economic Development Commission member, said that the meeting is open to all and designed to be an open forum. Speakers, including town government and historical officials, will discuss the situation with the structure, followed by a question-and-answer period, he said. “At the end we hope to solicit a consensus from the participants as to whether or not they want to save the church,” he said. “We're hoping for a positive response that we can present to the selectmen. If not, then we will have to punt."

The town received a Historic Preservation Technical Assistance Grant (HPTAG) from the Connecticut Trust last year to conduct a feasibility study on restoring the structure. The study concluded that such a project would cost between $185,000 and $200,000. A hoped-for grant from the state for the restoration project fell through earlier this summer.

Cool said that since the building belongs to the town, applications for other grants are in limbo until town officials fully commit to the project. In addition, the VHMS cannot raise funds for the project without the selectmen’s go-ahead. While he said that community surveys have indicated that 90 percent of townspeople are in favor of saving the historic building, “the selectmen haven’t gone on record as 'yea' or 'nay.' That’s kind of what we’re pushing for at this meeting,” he said.

The church, which dates back to at least 1841 and last spring was listed on the State Register of Historic Places, boasts some unique architectural features, including a sloping floor and a pulpit located at the entrance, rather than to the rear. Initially a Methodist worship space, it was vacated by its congregation in 1970 when the church merged with Bethel Methodist in Griswold. The Voluntown Historical Society stepped in then to prevent the building from being sold and shipped out of state, but was unable to maintain the structure long-term and sold it to a private owner, said Cool.

That last owner, a builder of pipe organs, used the structure for storage but did little maintenance or repair, said Cool. He gave the building back to the town in lieu of back taxes, and concerns about safety led town officials to remove the steeple from the roof.

Besides structural issues, restoring the church faces other hurdles created by tight property lines and lack of access to the exterior, said Cool.

The VHMS hopes to restore the structure for use as a potential local history museum and welcome center for tourist information, as well as a space for other community events. “The town itself is so steeped in history, but nobody knows about it,” said Cool. “It helps define who we are today.”

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