By Adam Leech
PORTSMOUTH — Workers began the $200,000 face-lift project for the 146-year-old South Meeting House this week with the hope of getting it weather-tight before snowfall and available for a potential tenant soon thereafter.
The project is expected to take approximately eight weeks. However, workers already discovered significant rot in the bell tower that will require replacement of the corner support posts in addition to the replacement of siding and some minor work to the clock. Still, the city anticipates the project will be done before December.
“I’m hoping it doesn’t go much beyond that,” said Dan Hartrey, the city’s project manager. “We were hopeful (the bell tower) was not going to be as bad as it is. We anticipated there would be some decay, but it is what it is. We’ve got a budget we have to stick to and we’re working to make sure we get good value for it.”
The competitive bid process attracted six construction companies. Charters Brothers Construction, of Lowell, Mass., was awarded the bid, which came in below what was anticipated. Hartrey said the bid will help cover any additional costs required to fix the bell tower and he still plans to come in under budget.
The project is being funded by Urban Development Action Grant money the city already has, which means it will not impact the local tax rate.
The building at 280 Marcy St. was constructed in 1863 as a meeting house, but has also been used as a ward hall, school, church and meeting hall before it became the Children’s Museum in 1983. The museum relocated to Dover last summer, leaving 6,200 square feet of city-owned space unoccupied. The associate curator at The Sports Museum at TD Garden in Boston recently expressed interest in establishing a maritime museum in the building, but that proposal has only been discussed at this point.
City Manager John Bohenko said the project was necessary to ensure the building does not fall into a state of disrepair. In addition to the bell tower work, it will have a new roof, paint and siding will be fixed.
“It’s going to be a full overhaul to the exterior of the building. We want to make sure it’s in good shape for the winter. That was our main goal,” Bohenko said. “We’ll be working to see what type of entity will go in there, but that entity will be responsible for the fit-up of the interior.”
The bell tower was repaired in 1968 and replaced in 1979. Hartrey said the goal is to make the tower as weather-tight as possible to ensure it does not need any more repairs for at least 50 years. The more durable material should not be noticeable to passersby, he said. Work will require a crane to lift the bell tower roof off
Nancy Pollard, president of the Friends of the South End neighborhood group, said the aesthetic and structural improvements will likely make the building even more desirable to potential tenants.
“The Friends of the South End are very happy to see this go forward, and we look forward to a potential reuse at some point,” Pollard said.