By M.E. Jones and Dina Samfield
SHIRLEY -- In the first year of a three-year capital campaign that has raised $75,588 to date, repair work at the Historic Meetinghouse, the town's oldest public building, is progressing nicely.
Most of the heavy lifting is completed, according to Fundraising Committee Chairman Paul Przybyla and other members of the First Parish Meeting House Preservation Society, whose ongoing mission includes fixing up the beautiful old building while maintaining its historic integrity and function as a town gathering place.
The capital drive was kicked off with a "sizable contribution" from Bemis Associates and support from others in the business community, Przybyla said, including many who attended the annual fundraising event on a recent Friday night at the Bull Run.
The rustic restaurant itself is a local icon, owned and operated for over half a century by generations of the Guercio family, and well known in recent years for its weekly concerts with some big-name entertainers.
About the Meeting House
Since the founding of the town of Shirley in 1753, the Shirley Meeting House has played an integral part in the life of the town, from its roots as a parish and public meeting house to its current role as a living historic site, maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers.
Today, the Meeting House continues to be the centerpiece of the town's picturesque common and still provides a place for people to come together.
Keeping up the good work, the Meeting House Preservation Society holds a fundraising event each year to defray operating costs for the building. Friday night's annual fundraiser at the Bull Run included dinner and a show: "Music for the Soul" featuring Shirley's Emilie Faucher and Friends, all talented musicians and performers.
As guests tucked into "farm-to-table" green salads, to be followed by their choice of gourmet salmon or chicken dinners, Meeting House publicist Patty MacDonald welcomed a full-house crowd whose per-person event tickets contributed to the cause.
She also thanked partner organizations the Shirley Charitable Foundation, Center Town Hall Committee and Shirley farmers market for their collaborative efforts and the SCF for funding the evening's entertainment.
Introducing Building Committee Chairman Robert Adam, MacDonald noted that he had climbed an 85-foot firefighter's ladder "to repair the roof and preserve the building for generations to come."
The ladder was provided by the Devens Fire Department, MacDonald said. The Shirley Fire Department also lent its equipment to the cause, but didn't have a ladder tall enough to reach the old building's lofty eaves.
It was one of many such hands-on tasks Adam and other committee members tackled during the restoration. "He's our superhero," she said.
Adam gave a telling slide-show presentation of work accomplished and in progress at the Historic Meetinghouse, freshly painted white and resplendent in a recent photo.
Upkeep of the old building is an ongoing labor of love, but the bulk of the restorative work the volunteer caretakers set out to do has been accomplished, he said.
"Historic buildings require a great deal of constant care," Adam said. "Maintenance is preservation." So, over the last few years, the Preservation Society tried to "catch up" after years of patchwork fixes. Hopefully, recent repairs will be "100-year fixes," he said.
Adam, whose professional specialty is historic architectural restoration, and students from the private school where he taught the subject for many years, replaced molding and installed a new door on the fire escape, which was also a replacement part, again. The new stairs are galvanized, he said.
Adam credited creative ironwork and masonry repairs to local artisans who work in those two trades, one of whom rents storage space in the basement of the building.
Pictures on a screen told the story chronologically, showing steps in the building's gradual makeover, from "low maintenance" paint jobs to bringing features and fixtures up to code, inside and out.
"The good news was, they were wide sills," he said, leaving plenty of purchase when the rot was pared away.
While a surprising number of clapboards were in good shape, rotted wood under the old fire escape opened up a home for wildlife, he said. "We had an infestation of squirrels." With the rodents evicted, the boards were replaced.
While working on the bell tower, Adam made a serendipitous discovery. Carved into the wood with a penknife were the initials E.B.M. "Benton MacKaye..." was responsible for that graffiti, he said, citing the noted naturalist and planner who helped build the Appalachian Trail. MacKaye had a summer home in Shirley and figures prominently in its 20th century history.
One of the most daring feats for the Meeting House restoration crew was taking down the damaged weathervane crowning the tower, 120 feet up. The old structure will be an artifact now, replaced by a reproduction, Adam said.
Painting the building was a challenge, too, done by the book with due care taken to catch and vacuum up lead paint particles for safe disposal.
Now, the Meeting House looks simply spectacular, especially on a clear autumn day, with its bell tower rising gracefully above the trees and its pristine white façade shining in the sun.
Music for the Soul," an evening of song and prose
Actor and comedian Mark Jeffrey launched the evening's entertainment with a story about the "last tattooed woman" on the Louisiana Bayou, a young, unwed mother who revealed her "voodoo stamp" for a grocer's charity.
As the poignant tale ended, Emilie Faucher appeared at the piano. Her soulful, melancholy version of Billy Joel's "Piano Man" was warmly received.
Next on stage, local guitarists Joe and Rob Compagna, with Den "Lefty" Poitras on percussion, joined Faucher for "Autumn Leaves," a simple French harmony with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Faucher sang each note reverently, coddling each sound with the tenderness of a new mother.
Acoustic guitarist Jason Eisenberg and trombonist Mark Hamilton merged in for Tom Waits' "New Coat of Paint," followed by Van Morrison's "Moondance."
After Faucher crooned an original love song by Compagna, with the composer on guitar, Eisenberg offered up his own take on "Message in a Bottle" by The Police, with Faucher's slow, dreamy interpretation of the tune underscoring the sense of aloneness evoked by the lyrics.
With Hamilton on melody, Faucher and her band dug into the bossa nova hit "The Girl from Ipanema" and the jazzy blues ballad "Cry Me a River."
Jeffrey returned with a spot of Shakespeare, Al Pacino-style. Accompanied by Lefty on bass, he also introduced a self-penned piece, "Someone's Always Moving to Arizona," a wistful reminiscence about accepting change.
The next piece, "My Blue Heaven," blended Faucher's harmony and masterful whistling with Eisenburg's Leon Redbone-style vocals and guitar to create an authentic 1920's feel.
Other songs in the first set included the '20s classic "Everybody Loves My Baby," the 19th-century folk tune "Wayfaring Stranger," the Consuelo Velazquez hit "Besame Mucho" and "Fever" by Van Morrison, featuring Compagna on guitar and Hamilton on trombone.
The second set started off with Chris Hatch on harmonica for John Mellencamp's "Pink Houses," with Faucher and her cousin Pat Brekka providing vocals with a pronounced country twist.
Hatch then sang the lead and teamed up with Brekka on guitar for the Dolly Parton song, "Jolene," switching to banjo for Michelle Shocked's "Prodigal Daughter."
Jeffrey's "N'Ahleans" prose segued perfectly into the finale, "Buona Sera," by legendary New Orleans jazzman Louis Prima. "To come from New Orleans is to come from sound," Jeffrey said.
Adding to the diversity on stage, vocalist and Nashoba Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year Jodie Rachman joined Faucher, Brekka and Hatch for "Folsom Prison" and "Orphan Girl," with Hatch trading guitar for banjo on the second song.