The 1835 Union Church, home of the Durham Historical Society, is shown Wednesday, the day after Board of Selectmen Chairman Joe Tomm announced no one except Town Manager Jerry Douglass and Fire Chief Robert Tripp will be allowed in it because of structural issues. A state inspection found the back right corner foundation sill is rotted, according to members. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

DURHAM — The town-owned Union Church at 744 Royalsborough Road has failed an inspection by the Office of State Fire Marshal, leaving the Durham Historical Society unable to access the 1835 building.

The back right corner of the foundation sill is rotting, making it unsafe, according to society members.

Selectmen discussed the building at recent meetings and relayed the fire marshal’s decision to the public at their Tuesday meeting after a discussion and an executive session. The town has no plans to reopen the church until a second-party structural engineer inspects the building, Chairman Joe Tomm said.

Nobody will be allowed in the building except Town Manager Jerry Douglass and Fire Chief Robert Tripp, Tomm said. “Just so everybody knows, no entry into that church until further notice. I just want to be crystal clear about that.”

Society Chairwoman Tia Wilson said in a phone interview that the news comes amid plans to hold the society’s first open house in years in early September.

The Union Church, home to the society since 1984, has undergone much preparation, she said, including framing of centuries-old maps, setting up exhibits of period attire and countless displays of other local history. Since July, nine volunteers, including one archivist, have conducted meticulous cataloguing of collections since the society’s 1972 inception through nearly 350 volunteer hours.


Wilson said the society and the Durham Historical Commission were made aware of the inspection failure before selectmen were able to address it publicly. When she reached out to someone at the fire marshal’s office with information about the society and its events, the inspection would not have failed under that context which was overlooked in the inspection process, she said.

“If the town tells (inspectors) we’re going to have 50 to 100 people inside the building, they’re getting information that is not correct,” Wilson said. “We are not going to have an overabundance of people inside all at once, which town officials seem to be misconstruing the kind of event that we’re having.”

However, the inspection is only a small part of a much larger problem: deferred maintenance.

Durham Historic Preservation Commission chairman and society member Lois Kilby-Chesley spoke at recent meetings about the poor state of the church’s foundation sills, which were identified in 2001 when it was registered with the National Register of Historic Buildings. The matter was brought up with the board many times over those years, including inspections in 2015 and 2017 by Maine Preservation, and a fund was created by the town for repairs to that building alone, which has never gone toward the sill issues. The fund has $31,000.

In recent years, a new roof was installed, other deferred maintenance addressed and a new walkway made, Kilby-Chesley said.

She said at Tuesday’s meeting that per town ordinance, the commission is charged with alerting the town’s code enforcement officer of any historic buildings in disrepair. That process would force the CEO to give the owner a notice of violation. In short, the Union Church’s disrepair would necessitate the CEO give the town a notice of violation.


“If we want to follow that ordinance, I’m sure the commission would go right ahead,” Kilby-Chesley said. “But we’re trying to do this (without) giving the town a violation notice and going through the codes officer and having the codes officer tell the select board that the building is no longer within code. We can do it that way. It’s up to you.”

Selectman Heather Roy acknowledged the growing frustration over the years for Kilby-Chesley’s organizations, but the board is trying and willing to do something about it.

“We are not responsible for the decision the board made 20 years ago,” Roy said. “There is a presence here that is trying to work the process properly so it does go in front of the voters so the voters can decide.”

Tomm also attributed deferred maintenance to priorities set by the board over the years. Repairs to historic buildings have to be balanced against necessities like ambulances, he said.

“It’s that simple of a calculation in many peoples’ minds,” Tomm said.

However, Tomm said he feels the building and everything inside it is important, having walked through it himself, and if townspeople want to vote to “go around fixing up all the old buildings” the board would stand behind that and prioritize projects according to need.

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