, Newburyport, MA

February 13, 2014

Protecting the town's 'showcase'

Voters urged to OK funding to restore Old South Meetinghouse


---- — SEABROOK — You don’t have to be a Seabrook native to have a tender spot in your heart for the Old South Meetinghouse, which stands at the town’s gateway. It is the keeper of 250 years of history, and maybe of the future, if residents act soon.

“It is the showcase of the town of Seabrook,” Selectman Aboul Khan said of the white steepled structure. “There is a lot of history in there. We need to preserve this building.”

Khan was speaking at this year’s Deliberative Town Meeting session in hopes of persuading voters to approve at the polls on March 11 a warrant question asking for $43,000 to make badly needed repairs to the distressed building. He spoke to those who know its vast history and those who don’t.

A native of what is now Bangladesh who emigrated to the United States in 1981, Khan bought a business in town in 2001. A naturalized American citizen, he and his family have lived in Seabrook for 13 years, and he’s come to appreciate what the Old South Meetinghouse represents.

And it represents quite a lot, according to Seabrook Historical Society’s president, Eric Small. Built in 1764, it not only was the center in the formative years of the town and this nation, but it also served as Seabrook’s Town Hall from 1768 to 1954.

But now, the building at the corner of routes 1 and 107 is in disrepair, especially on the south side. Repeated rounds of painting over the past decades haven’t held up long, with the old wooden clapboards deteriorating more quickly every time. The windows need to be restored, and there’s other work that needs to be done as well.

Small and others believe it’s time to try something else. Instead of painting the existing siding again for tens of thousands of dollars, if residents vote to protect the historical icon, white cement clapboards would replace the wooden ones there now. The cement siding is more fire resistant, he said, and would be more economical than painting because they don’t need as much maintenance over the years. They’ve worked well on Hampton Falls’ historic Town Hall and old library, he added.

Given Old South Meetinghouse’s distinguished history, those with an eye on both the past and future believe the improvements would serve not only the building, but the community as well.

According to Planning Board member Jason Janvrin, when the board surveyed residents and business owners along the northern corridor of Route 1, most said they hold the Old South Meetinghouse in high esteem.

Historical Society member Bruce Brown believes the building represents Seabrook’s struggle during the 18th century to cast its fate with New Hampshire and not Massachusetts. Seabrook sits on land originally claimed as part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Brown said. But in 1740, three commissioners traveled to England over the dispute on Seabrook’s fate.

Among them was Seabrook’s Nathaniel Weare, who convinced King George II that New Hampshire was more loyal to the crown than its neighbor to the south. As a result, the king set New Hampshire’s border 3 miles north of the Merrimack River, making Seabrook part of the Granite State.

Shortly after, when residents grew disenchanted with the Congregational Church of Hampton Falls where they had worshiped, Seabrook residents received permission from the state General Assembly to incorporate as an independent town. So, in 1764, the Old South Meetinghouse was built by the Presbyterian Society, and the town was named after the Lord Seabrook, the Earl of coastal Seabrook, England.

For centuries after that, Old South Meetinghouse was the nexus of the town’s religious, governmental and social structure. It was the site of nearly all community functions for more than a century. Religious worship took place on the second floor under various denominations until 1980, according to Brown, and Seabrook’s annual Town Meetings were held on the first floor until 1954.

Inside, there are more treasures. For example, Old South Meetinghouse has a 178-year-old organ, built in 1838 by Newburyport native Richard Pike Morss. The instrument was originally constructed for Line Congregational Church in Seabrook, which sat on the border with Hampton Falls.

Morss’ organ is special not only because of its considerable age, but also because of its antique sound and charm, according to George Bozeman of the Guild of Organists, which hosted a concert at Old South Meetinghouse in 2012. Of the instruments Morss built from scratch, only Seabrook’s Line Church organ survives.

The American Revolution was discussed within its walls in 1774, and local men enlisted there to fight in the War for Independence, as well as the Civil War.

The community came together to worship there on Thanksgivings past, and on the lighter side, everything from prize fights to musical concerts and fundraising suppers went on regularly over the centuries.

It has withstood revival meetings, rallies against the use of alcohol during the days of the temperance leagues and lectures on the abolitionist movement against slavery. The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company exhibited and sold its remedies there on Jan. 9, 1891.