OTISFIELD — The ceiling is coming down at the historic 1839 Bell Hill Meetinghouse.

The $70,000 project includes removing the decades-old ceiling and uncovering and restoring the original lath and plaster ceiling. This week, an 11-foot-tall rolling platform was erected over the pews in the sanctuary to bring the demolition crew, and later the plasterer, to within 6 feet of the curved ceiling.

“It puts the plasterers up close enough to the ceiling to plaster. Sort of like Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel,” Callie Zilinsky, president of the Bell Hill Meetinghouse Association, said.

The nonprofit group was established in 1927 to maintain the meetinghouse and the nearby one-room brick schoolhouse on Bell Hill Road. Both buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Ken Bartow, project clerk of the works, said the ceiling was damaged by roof leaks believed to have started when the belfry was hit by lightning in 1924.

Information from Howard Dyer, who died several years ago at the age of 102 and was a walking encyclopedia of information for the town, was used to establish the time line of the damage and the attempts to fix it.

“He had an amazing memory,” Bartow said.

Dyer recalled in a 2006 interview that lightning struck the steeple in July 1924, shattering the carrying beam that helped hold up the northeast side of the steeple. The damage, however, was not discovered for several weeks.

The belfry, which held the 1860 Meneely Foundry bell, was framed for about $250 to keep it from sagging. In 1946, Dyer recalled, a short chimney that hadn’t been used in years and was considered the cause of roof leaks was taken down.

Bartow said Mark Grover and his crew from Lloyd Grover & Sons Inc. in Otisfield began removing the ceiling this week.

The platform work space will be heated to help plasterer Peter Lord of Plastic & Paint in Limington to restore the plaster and laths.

The work is expected to be completed in time for a June wedding.

The association has raised $70,000 from member contributions and fundraising, Zalinsky said.

The Federal/Greek Revival style meetinghouse, designed and built by local master carpenter Nathan Nutting Jr., is used for weddings, concerts and displays of artifacts.

Each summer, the association holds a public service in the sanctuary that they say honors God, country and tradition. The tradition started in 1913 when the residents of Bell Hill and their friends initiated the first service after the Congregationalists moved their Sunday worship to a newer building at Spurrs Corner in the 1880s.

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