Maine meeting house put on endangered historic places list

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June 19, 2013, 6:28 pm
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(NECN: Amy Sinclair) - The National Trust For Historic Preservation has just released its list of 11 most endangered historic places in the United States, and two of those properties are in New England - Gay Head Lighthouse on Martha's Vineyard and a little known meeting house in Portland, Maine.

Were it not for the plaque out front, most people would pass right by the tired looking building on Portland's Newbury Street. But the Abyssinian meeting house tells the story of the city's first African American residents.

"Often because we're one of the least racially diverse states in the United States, we overlook this history," said Mike Brennan, Portland's Mayor. "But this building is a critical story we need to tell."

Built in 1828 by free blacks, it is the third oldest African American meeting house in the country.

It served as church, school, and refuge to slaves who were making their way to freedom on the Underground Railroad. When it closed in 1917, it was converted into tenement apartments and was very nearly torn down until the Committee To Restore The Abyssinian bought in the late 1990s.

"It was a complete mess when we first got here," recalled Eric Dube, restoration project manager. "It had been abandoned, so there were animal skeletons ... trash and everything you could imagine."

They were able to stabilize the building and restore the roof, but funding has nearly run dry, which is the main reason the National Trust For Historic Preservation put it on this year's most endangered list.

"We're hoping that presenting and showcasing the Abyssinian's plight will galvanize support, will make individuals feel a call to action and hopeful donate to support this cause," National Trust For Historic Preservation's Brent Leggs said.

The funds needed to bring the Abysinnian back are substantial, since they need between $2.5 - $3 million to complete the restoration and reestablish this meeting house as a cultural center in Portland.

It's worth noting that the building has staying power. It has already survived several fires, urban renewal and the wrecking ball.

"Patience, persistence, and perseverance!" said Leonard Cummings, Restoration Committee Chairman. "We're here for the long run. This building will be completed."

Because its story is too important to be forgotten. To learn more about the restoration project, you can go to www.abyme.org

Tags: portland, Amy Sinclair, National Trust For Historic Preservation, Abyssinian meeting hous, Underground Railroad, committee To Restore The Abyssinian, Eric Dube, Leonard Cummings
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