PLYMOUTH - Visitors to Town Square may feel like they have gone back in time when scaffolding comes down from around the National Pilgrim Memorial Meetinghouse later this week.

The project to restore the exterior of the former First Parish Church is on schedule for completion by the middle of the month and the finished product will restore the historic stone building to its original 19th century luster.

Over the last six months, workers have cleaned more than a century of soot and grime from the granite and sandstone façade of the former church, giving the meetinghouse a brighter, sharper appearance. More importantly, re-pointing of the stonework and the replacement of its slate roof will protect the building from the elements for at least another century as it begins a new life as an orientation center for tourists interested in learning the Pilgrim story.

"We probably caught it just in time," Ron Filson, project manager for the General Society of Mayflower Descendants (Mayflower Society), said of the restoration work. "If the roof hadn't been replaced and completely tightened up within a year, the preservation people said we would have started to see really big chunks of interior plaster come down. So it was time. It needed to be done right away."

Weather-permitting, the building's distinctive Tiffany stained-glass front windows will be re-installed above the newly refurbished oak front doors this week. The scaffolding will then come down, revealing the building as it would have first appeared when it opened in 1899.

Residents have had a glimpse of the improvements for the last few weeks, since contractors removed the scaffolding around the tower of the meetinghouse in mid November. Those looking closely will notice that the stonework is not only stronger and more secure as a result of painstaking re-pointing, but considerably brighter as well - giving the building a look that was lost to environmental staining over the last 120 years.

Filson said contractors went through 20 different combinations of cleansers and solvents before finding a solution that was able to remove the grime.

"Some of the stains were so deeply embedded in the stone, especially the sandstone, that we weren't sure if it was going to clean up," Filson said, tracing the stains to coal stoves that were used throughout Plymouth in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries.

The result, he said is a building that looks like it did when built.

"The great thing is we have not had to make any deviations from the original intent and the original character and original condition of the building," Filson, dean emeritus of the Tulane University School of Architecture, said.

The work marks a vast improvement over deteriorating conditions that had volunteers racing to the building with buckets to collect rain after major storms just last winter.

Slates that came off the roof were definitely in need of replacement, Filson said, but the substructure and sheathing beneath were in remarkably good condition. Workers were able to find an exact match for the slate, which should last another 100 years.

The project included the restoration of the oak front doors, which were refinished with six coats of lacquer. One of the original side doors remains and is being restored as well. It will be used as a model for three others that have been replaced over the years.

Money saved by not having to replace sheathing will be used to restore bronze plaques outside the entrance to the meetinghouse. It will also pay for exterior lighting.

The town agreed to fund the exterior restoration work through its Community Preservation funds after First Parish agreed to turn over ownership of the building to the Mayflower Society. The society has agreed to assume care of the building and is proceeding with plans to restore its interior and convert much of the building into an orientation center for visitors to town.

Filson said designers are completing initial plans for the interior project and expect to unveil their preliminary plans in January.

Lea Filson, Ron Filson's wife, is a former governor general of the Mayflower Society and is the executive director of Destination Plymouth. She said the lighting will be strategically placed to show off the tower and especially the Tiffany windows and predicted the impact on the town will be amazing.

"By the time we finish the interior and programming, I honestly believe this is going to be a game-changer for Plymouth," she said. "I think people are going to travel here just to see what's inside the building and see and hear the Pilgrim story."

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