READFIELD — Ashton Harris, 7, followed the gaze of Jim Tukey to the ceiling of the choir loft of the Readfield Union Meetinghouse.

“Do you know that’s just tricking your eye?” asked Tukey, the president of the Readfield Union Meetinghouse Co. Inc. “That ceiling is just flat.”

Tukey led Harris to the sanctuary wall. Curiously, the 7-year-old reached out to touch what appeared to be a column — but it was only a painting on plaster.

“Oh yeah!” Harris gasped.

The painting is a trompe l’oeil, French for “fool the eye.” The two-dimensional paintings mislead the eye into thinking the walls and ceiling of the meetinghouse are three-dimensional.

Conservation work is being done on the paintings on the ceiling — the first part of a five-year restoration plan developed by the Readfield Union Meetinghouse Co. Inc. board of trustees. The paintings are the last known existing work of Charles J. Schumacher, who painted 51 buildings in the state.

“We have a five-year plan that addresses the rest of the restoration here,” Tukey said. “As long as the funding comes like we hope, maybe in about five years, we’ll have this restored.”

Fissures run through the plaster displaying trompe l’oeil paintings Wednesday in the sanctuary of the Readfield Union Meetinghouse. Work is underway to restore the paintings in the sanctuary of the structure, believed to have been erected in 1827. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

If meetinghouse restorations are completed according to the plan, Harris will be able to ring the meetinghouse bell when he turns 12.

The improvements needed are expected to cost the around $500,000.

Restoration of the steeple, including the clock, will be one of the more costly repairs to the meetinghouse. Tukey and meetinghouse treasurer John Perry estimate the repairs will cost $300,000 to $350,000. Right now, a temporary roof protects the steeple.

Eventually, it will be topped with a replica spire like one that would have been there when the building was first constructed in 1827-1828. The bell, which is being safely stored, will be reinstalled. The spire came off in 1916 during a winter storm.

The original use of the building was as a place of worship for a union of different faiths. Upkeep of the building had been financed by the parishioners, but by the 1940s, use had declined because the churches eventually could afford to construct and maintain their own buildings.

In the 1950s, neighbor Ernie Bracy adopted the building, Tukey said, because “he felt as though it was too valuable of a building to let go.”

Jim Tukey, president of the Readfield Union Meetinghouse Company Inc., speaks to Ashton Harris, 7, of Scarborough about the trompe l’oeil paintings in the structure. The paintings “fool the eye” into thinking that the walls and ceiling have a three-dimensional surface but are in fact two-dimensional. They were painted by Charles J. Schumacher in 1867. Kennebec Journal photo by Abigail Austin

“He carried the torch around town to get people interested,” Tukey said.

Bracy would do whatever he could in town to make a little money just so he could keep the rain from getting into the building.

“He had the metal roof put on — that was before the building was on the (National) Register of Historic Places,” Tukey said.

The building was placed on the register in 1982, and any repairs made must maintain the building’s historical integrity.

“A lot of the clapboard is original,” Perry said. “To the extent that original clapboard can be refinished and reused, we’re obligated to do that because we’re on the national registry.

“It’s only when that particular piece of wood can’t be brought back to life that we can go back and put something in as similar as possible,” he added.

The Maine Historic Preservation Commission advises the board on maintaining the Meetinghouse.

“Because it has to be done to the federal standard, you have to seek out contractors that are certified to do this kind of work,” Tukey said.

Chris Blackburn, right, and Tony Castro inject and brush a stabilizing agent into laths Wednesday in the attic of the Readfield Union Meetinghouse. The men are stabilizing the plaster suspended above the sanctuary of the Meetinghouse to preserve the trompe l’oeil paintings that adorn the ceiling of the structure, believed to have been built in 1827. The men will make three passes with chemicals between the wood laths of the 60-foot-by-40-foot timber-framed and mortar building. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

The board has contracted Tony Castro, the same artist who was hired by the Lithgow Public Library in Augusta to restore the paint in its reading room last year. Castro conserves art on plaster, wood and canvas. Having completed the interior walls, Castro is restoring the meetinghouse ceiling this spring.

“Where plaster has separated, he’ll gently push it back in place, and then he’ll go up in the attic from the topside with all his specialty chemicals that he’ll inject through the layers,” Tukey explained. “Then he’ll go over the entire ceiling to inject a consolidant that will strengthen the plaster.”

A bat infestation led to repairs needed in the attic, which also needs structural fixes. The eaves will be replaced or repaired and batproofed; and the insulation — which was damaged by bat guano — will be replaced.

“Folks that have been here over the past three years are changing their minds about ‘you’ll never get that thing going,’” Tukey said. “So much was needed, and it had been sitting for so long.”

The meetinghouse group is carrying Bracy’s torch.

In the 2000s, trustees Marius Péladeau and Milt Wright made the structure more visible to the community after years of neglect when they took on the challenge of overseeing its restoration and revitalization.

To keep the meetinghouse relevant, it will take more people — hopefully younger people — to become interested in it. Tukey said the average age of the trustees is in the 70s.

“The responsibility of taking care of the building is handed down from generation to generation,” Perry said.

Ashton Harris, of Scarborough, had been out for a walk while visiting his grandfather, Bob Harris. Passing the meetinghouse, he asked, “Can we look in that old building?”

“He’s my charge for the week,” Bob Harris said.

To be visible to other, younger people, including families, the board is planning to host a biweekly program series this summer, “Meet Me at the Meetinghouse,” along with a strawberry festival and a pumpkin festival with a trunk-or-treat event.

“We’ve tried to have more events to incorporate the community,” said Nancy Durgin, vice president of the Meetinghouse Co.

These events not only are expected to provide exposure, but also will be fundraising opportunities, such as an international dinner that will take place from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Maranacook Community High School. Other revenue includes donations and grant funding.

When restoration is complete, the building also will be used for conferences, weddings, funerals and other civic purposes.

 

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