Centuries old church-owned building needs volunteers for repairs

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The 179 year-old Grange Hall on Sound Avenue in Northville is in serious need of repair.

Northville’s Grange Hall has served as a school, church, theater, homeless shelter, art gallery, Masonic Lodge and farmers’ meeting house over its 179-year history.

But the building is now in serious need of repair and its owner, First Parish Church of the United Church of Christ just across Sound Avenue, is planning to invite the community next spring to help revitalize the building and rethink how it should be used.

On January 11, First Parish Church Pastor Dianne Rodriguez will host a meeting with representatives of three other local UCC churches to discuss plans for the hall. She hopes to roll out a public campaign then to fix up the building next spring. She explained she thought of it after Maureen’s Haven officials told her they wanted to bring in the fire marshall to inspect the facility because of safety concerns.

Maureen’s Haven is a non-profit group that houses homeless people in a different congregation on the East End each night, relying on volunteers, space and kitchen facilities from the host churches.

When the small First Parish Church congregation first set up its shelter last year, it didn’t have enough volunteers in to staff the shelter, said Pastor Rodriguez. Baiting Hollow Congregational Church provided money to heat the Grange for the homeless shelter, while volunteers from Old Steeple Community Church agreed to help staff the once-a-week shelter. Riverhead First Congregational Church agreed to help, too, and Orient Congregational Church donated an industrial stove.

But money is so tight for the tiny First Parish Church that it doesn’t have the resources to bring the stove to Northville. It’s sitting in the Orient firehouse.

The Grange’s 80-year-old kitchen is only one aspect of the building that needs updating. The old steam heat system works, but heat is quickly dispersed through the building’s tin downstairs interior walls, which aren’t insulated. There is no bathroom on the second floor, which is used as a sleeping area for the men who stay at Maureen’s Haven. When the building is used as a shelter, the church places a porta-potty outside and the men take the fire escape if they need to use the bathroom at night.

The second story floor is warped, but its problems pale compared to the former first story floor, which the congregation replaced last year at a cost of $40,000 in order to make the space habitable for Maureen’s Haven.

The Grange Hall was built in 1831 on the corner of Doctor’s Path and Route 25 in Riverhead as a church for the UCC congregation, said Richard Wines, the chairman of Riverhead’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, whose family has long been involved with the church.

He said the building was moved to its current site just across from Church Lane in Northville in 1834 after the congregation split; one group stayed in Riverhead and the other took the building with them. It served as First Parish Church until another church was built across the street in 1860. It then became Northville Academy, a private secondary school. The new church building burned down in 1877, and in 1901 so did another one built to replace it. In one case the building was struck by lightning, said Mr. Wines, and the cause of the other fire was a mystery. The current First Parish Church is the third one built on the site across from the old original structure.

In the 1870s, the old structure became a community meeting hall and in the early 20th century, the Grange, a farmer’s association, began meeting there, giving the building its name.

“They never owned the building, they just met there,” said Mr. Wines.

Since then, the building has served a number of community functions. In the late 1990s, it was a meeting place for North Fork Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and it’s been used by theater groups, Alcoholics Anonymous, a quilting group, and, most recently, for organic gardening classes offered by The Nature Lyceum based in Westhampton. There is a piano and an organ and a stage and pews in the upstairs room, which have also seen ample use.

Pastor Rodriguez hopes to use the building for a literary club and art exhibition space in the near future. She said that it has a history of use by literary groups.

Though she is well aware of the building’s rich and varied history, she believes the building will best be preserved if the community at large, and local UCC congregations, decide how it can best serve the community’s needs in the 21st century.

“We want to stay away from making it a historic site. We don’t see our ministry as preserving history. We want to preserve the building for the community’s needs in the future,” she said.

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