By Bruce Amaro
---- — It was a clash between history and modern red tape.
A 2013 paper-chase road block has been getting in the way of neighbors’ efforts to restore one of Haverhill’s oldest buildings, dating back to the early 1800s.
The neighbors are members of the East Parish Meeting House Society. They live in what historically is known as East Parish, a section of Haverhill in the eastern corner of the city.
The society wanted to make repairs to the old East Parish Meeting House and needed grant money to pay for the work. But the group did not have documents giving it legal ownership of the property — a requirement to get grants.
Even though neighbors have been taking care of the building for years, the society needed to prove ownership before it could seek grants from organizations like the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
The neighbors were able to find documents tracing ownership of the meeting house up to 1784, but no further.
“After Mr. Nathaniel Whittier died, his property was divided amongst his children and his daughter Abigail Whittier sold her share of her inherited property that included the Meeting House land to Anthony Chase in 1784,’’ society member Roberta Roffo said in an email. “We could find no further deeds regarding the Meeting House on Middle Road despite extensive searching by many people including Registry staff.’’
So Roffo and other society members went before the City Council to ask for help providing registered proof that they, in essence, own the building.
The council listened to the society’s story last week and gave neighbors ownership of the building.
“What were doing essentially is saying that we recognize these people as being the owners of this parcel of land, for which historically they have acted as the owners,” Councilor Michael Hart said.
Mayor James Fiorentini signed off on ownership the 300-year-old structure at 150 Middle Road and the society received its Declaration of Legal Ownership document from Haverhill.
That gives the property to the society, which can now seek grants and begin restoration work.
Up until now, the society has raised a few hundred dollars here and there through auctions and mailings.
Grants would bring the group much more money, however.
“In May 2013, with the assistance of Representative Brian Dempsey, we were awarded a grant of $29,700 in Secretary of State Historic Property Emergency Repair Funds,’’ Roffo said in her email, “specifically to remedy animal infestation in the building and to also complete internal drywall repairs.
“But we could not receive the funding without a deed or legal proof of Ownership, which eventually led to tonight’s request,’’ she said of last week’s council meeting.
“We searched deeds and even probate records way back to the 1700s with the assistance of many people including Registry of Deeds staff,’’ Roffo’s email said. “We found documentation that the Whittier Family originally owned the land where the meeting house was first built by parishioners in 1744 on the south side of Turkey Hill.
The original Meeting House building lasted almost 100 years, until the current building was built in 1838 on the same site.’’
The original one-and-a-half story wood-frame building was constructed about 1838 in the Greek Revival style. It was first used as a Congregationalist church, but eventually became a non-denominational house of worship, Roffo said.
The building’s appeal lies in its unaltered condition and the fact that it still has no electrical power or central heating system.
The building’s bell, created in 1848 for Haverhill’s then-Town Hall, was placed at the meeting house in 1861.
The meeting house is registered on the national and state Register of Historic Places since 2011.
It also holds a place on the Most Endangered Historic Places list.
ABOUT EAST PARISH MEETING HOUSE
Built: About 1838
Location: 150 Middle Road
Original use: Congregationalist church
Purpose: Replaced original meeting house built in 1744