The Town of Essex has opened bidding for the sale of the church!
The Methodist-Episcopal Church is the oldest surviving church edifice in the Town of Essex, New York, and one of a group of structures built in Essex of local quarried limestone. According to church records, the church was organized in Essex on December 30, 1834 with the appointment of seven trustees, many of whom were key founders of the town. Church construction began shortly thereafter, but took several years to complete due to a lack of funding.
Records indicate that by 1856 several extensive improvements had been made to the church edifice; including, the construction of a new pulpit, altar, and orchestra area, as well as the sealing and finishing of the interior face of the edifice’s stone walls with fur, lath and plaster. Improvements to the church edifice between 1856 and 1874 included lowering of the pulpit, installation of new carpeting, relocation of the choir from the gallery to the left side of the pulpit, and shingling of the steeple. By April 1885, the edifice’s roof had been covered in slate and its exterior masonry repointed. At roughly the same time, the interior of the edifice was decorated with new windows and carpets, and a furnace was installed for a cost of about $1,000.
A steady decline in church membership, which mirrored a sharp drop in the general population of Essex in the late 19th century, resulted in the Methodist-Episcopal Church’s federation with Essex’s Baptist Church. Records indicate that by October 1922, “Rev. Werson, the M.E. minister preached to the ‘Federated’ Churches using the Baptist Church as the M.E. was made over into the Masonic Hall and the Presbyterian Church had no furnace.”
The Federated Church sold the church’s edifice to the American Legion in 1932 for $400. During its ownership of the building, the American Legion replaced the lower half of the building’s leaded glass windows with clear glass, and removed its bell tower and one of two original brick chimneys designed and built into the building’s rear wall. In addition, the American Legion covered the remaining gallery with a new stage and applied green paint to the walls and white paint over ornate stenciling on the ceiling.
When Essex was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, the Methodist-Episcopal Church was included as a contributing structure in the historic district. At the time, no one had used the building for several years. On March 10, 1978, the American Legion transferred the property to the Town of Essex with a reversion clause should it ever cease to be used for public use. Town employees gutted the building’s basement in the late 1970s and converted it for use as a Senior Citizen Center and Nutrition Site. As part of the conversion, the building’s ground story fenestration was removed, and a kitchen, bathroom, and furnace were added. Patty James managed the Senior Citizen’s Center and Nutrition Site in the 1980s. Today, Dennis Everleth manages the Essex Nutrition Site. At present the main sanctuary has been mostly unused for over 40 years.
In 1980, the Essex Community Heritage Organization (ECHO) commissioned architect Martin Tierney of Burlington, Vermont, to conduct a study of sites in Essex funded by grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the New York State Division of Community Renewal. Notes in ECHO’s files state that, “the former Methodist Church was included in the study, not only because of its historic and esthetic value, but because of its great potential as a community gathering place.”
The study renewed public interest in utilizing the structure, and, in 1982, ECHO began a fundraising effort on behalf of town that included the preparation of a grant application entitled, “Recycling a Key Hamlet Structure: Methodist-Episcopal Church.” ECHO’s efforts resulted in the town receiving a $7,000 matching grant as part of the federal Emergency Job Act of 1983.
The Town retained Martin Tierney again to conduct a conditions assessment and outline a course of stabilization repairs. In addition, Kip Trienens of Westport, New York, was consulted with regard to preservation of the building’s windows. He recommended an acrylic epoxy glaze for the sills that later was utilized.
In May 12, 1984, a progress report to the town, ECHO stated, “New bell tower support trusses have been constructed which will allow for the reconstruction of the bell tower, should this be desired.” ECHO noted that the roof historically was shingled in wood, but that it was replacing damaged existing circa 1885 slate with 14 squares of new slate and using lead-coated copper flashing to match original zinc flashing. At the same time ECHO also applied a new brick face to the 1978 exterior concrete chimney. By May 15, 1984, ECHO had received $17,000 in donations, spent $11,900 on work on the building’s roof, and contributed $7,000 to the town to match its federal grant. Total preservation contracts were awarded for $18,340 for the project upon completion.
In 1988, ECHO hired master plasterer, Michael Kempster, to teach a plastering course using the building’s interior as a working classroom. Kempster taught 22 days of classes and gave an estimate at the time of $14,000 to repaint the ornate ceiling. Kempster’s class resulted in some repairs to deteriorated plaster, but painting was not included.
In 2003, Essex Initiatives—a local volunteer group dedicated to town beautification—organized volunteers to clean the building’s interior. Concerns over lead paint halted work.
Just before STAFFORD DENTON CROSS AMERICAN LEGION POST 1055 became inactive in the late 2000’s (due to lack of membership), the town and ECHO were given $131,000 in two combined grants to repair the structure. The first part was a matching grant from the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) as a municipal matching grant. The second part was from an Empire State Development Corporation grant, filed through ECHO.
NYS stipulated that the deed reversion clause needed to be removed since they did not want to fund work on a structure that potentially could lapse back into private non-profit hands. As the final Post president (and simultaneously treasurer of the ECHO board at that time) Todd Goff worked with Town Supervisor Ron Jackson to remove this clause so the town could get the funding to repair the building.
The adjustment to the deed was filed, and the reversion clause was removed. While he signed the agreement to remove the clause, it was done solely with the purpose of allowing the town to receive the rehabilitation grants. It was a matter of trust that the town would retain the structure for public use, preferably for the betterment of senior citizens.
In 2012 the town board considered selling it to CFES. At the time I explained to them, via letter from Skopje, why I felt this it was wrong. CFES ended up acquiring the post office instead as a neighborly way to do the right thing.
On August 6 2013, the auctioning off of the Old Stone Church was discussed again by the Town Board as a way to fund the matching grant to face the retaining wall on lake street. They resolved to sell it:
“Resolution # 55 of 2013
The following resolution was offered by Councilman Garvey, who moved its adoption.
Be it resolved the Town Board of Essex authorizes Supervisor Boisen to contract with Haroff Auctions and Realty Inc. to auction off the Old Stone Church located at 11 Church St., Essex, NY. Parcel number 40.73-2-13.000. Opening bid will be set at a minimum of $86,000 the appraised value of the property. This property will be included in the County Tax sale this fall.
The resolution was duly seconded by Councilman MacDougal and was adopted.
Councilman Wrisley – yes
Councilwoman LaPine – yes
Councilman MacDougal – yes
Councilman Garvey – yes
Supervisor Boisen – yes”
Now, a year later this appeared:
“The minimum bid will start at $86,500.00. Bids need to be received by the Town Clerk by August 16th, 2014 no later than 6:30 P.M. The Bids will be opened at 6:45 P.M. The Town has the right to accept and reject any and all bids. Terms are 20% down and remainder at closing. ” (http://www.adkbyowner.com/listings/RE8594.html)
Although the town may now be able to terminate senior citizen use of the structure, and our duly elected representatives even voted sell the structure outright, it is greatly disheartening.
As a matter of principle and honor, it is my opinion that should the town ever sell the church, the revenue received should be either donated to the NY State American Legion or better yet be earmarked for a project to benefit Essex, NY’s senior citizens. Sale revenue should not be placed in the general operating funds of the town. It was not given to the town to be sold!
As an alternative, I propose that the town consider issuing a long-term lease to a non-profit instead of a sale, to keep this public edifice for the public.
It is my personal opinion the town should retain the structure and consider a long term lease. Suggested ideas regarding a long term lease follow:
- Set the lease to be sufficient to cover the operating cost of a senior center elsewhere.
- Make the lessee responsible for all maintenance, repairs, and improvements. The town will benefit from improvements that the leaseholder makes to the structure, hopefully getting a better building back at the end of the lease at no cost to the town.
- Any changes or repairs the lessee makes should be reviewed by the town planning board to ensure and they are in accordance with the US Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. The reason for this is because it is a public structure and is listed as a contributing structure to the Essex Village Historic District on the National Register of Historic Sites.
- The town should verify replacement insurance coverage is sufficient on the property. The Ferrisburg, VT grange fire is an example of why this is paramount.
- Lessee must acknowledge presence of lead paint and follow NYS guidelines to limit public exposure via encapsulation.
Essex’s Methodist-Episcopal Church holds a special place in the Essex community. Today’s senior citizens remember fondly days when its main hall was used for honoring veterans, community meetings, and even dances. While the structure certainly deserves its contributing status to the Essex Village Historic District – i.e., as an early (1835) and beautiful example of Gothic Revival – its fundamental significance lies more with its community meaning. And it is time to return this beautiful building to that prominence.
[The information in this post originally appeared on Facebook as “Save the Stone Church from Private Sale!!!!” on July 10, 2014 and the contributors were Todd Goff, Sabrina Witherby and Greg Tisher. It is republished here with permission from Todd Goff.]