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Meeting House to undergo $800,000 restoration

Preserving the past for posterity

Mathew George stood on the old wooden floor, his eyes cast across the pews and toward the Victorian pulpit. Thousands before him had stood on this same spot, making history and reliving it.

For close to three centuries, the Old South Meeting House (circa 1729) has invited the rebellious and the curious. But that many years can take a toll, even on the heartiest of New Englanders. So now, the Boston landmark is undergoing a facelift.

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“We heard about this, but unless you see it, you don’t get the feel, the context,” said George, visiting Tuesday from New Jersey. “It’s hard to describe what it feels like standing here and thinking about the things that happened here. If you tear all these things down, society will forget. You can read in books and imagine, but that’s much different from seeing.”

Scaffolding and mesh will rise around the Old South Meeting House over the next week, as the building, the place where the Boston Tea Party was launched, receives an $800,000 restoration.

The project, paid for with federal money, will last about three months and focus on exterior woodwork, windows, doors, and steeple. A fresh coat of paint will be applied to some areas.

While the project is underway, the museum will remain open, and visitors will still have the opportunity to get up close and touch the exterior, which is about 90 percent original, said spokeswoman Robin DeBlosi. More than 75,000 people visit annually.

George’s daughter, Tiffany, said she remembers history lessons from school on the Tea Party. Like her father, she was in awe, standing in the building that rises on Washington Street, in Downtown Crossing.

“I can imagine people more than 200 years ago, sitting here and making decisions that affect our country today,” she said.

Built as a Puritan meetinghouse, the Old South Meeting House was where colonists gathered to challenge British rule before the American Revolution.

It is now an independently owned and operated nonprofit museum and National Historic Landmark and is part of the Boston National Historical Park, a collection of sites that includes the Bunker Hill Monument and the Paul Revere House.

There have been threats to the Old South Meeting House in the past. The first came from the Great Boston Fire of 1872. Almost all downtown Boston was destroyed in the three-day blaze, but firefighters saved the meetinghouse.

In the 1870s, the congregation that owned the building moved to Copley Square, and the meetinghouse was auctioned for $1,350, basically the value of the materials that were slated to be salvaged after a planned demolition. The land alone was valued at about $400,000.

That threat “galvanized a determined group,” according to the meetinghouse’s website. “They enlisted the help of famous Bostonians, including Ralph Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Louisa May Alcott, to rally people to help.”

Enough money was raised from donations that the meetinghouse was spared from the wrecking ball, marking the first time in the United States that a building was saved because of its historic significance, DeBlosi said. The meetinghouse became a museum in 1877.

There was no bell in the steeple tower for almost 150 years. But in October 2011, a bell that was made in Paul Revere’s foundry before he died was lifted into the clock tower and connected to the original 1766 clock there.

While this latest renovation has been in the works for five years, it was during the bell placement that the meetinghouse staff realized the urgency to fix things.

“We saw that need when installing the bell,” DeBlosi said. “The features of the steeple, the louvers where you can hear the bell ring out, and the features of the steeple up on the top level of the spire — there are wood elements there that are in a terrible state of disarray.”

In addition, the windows will be sealed to prevent extensive water damage.

While the scaffolding and mesh cover may be unsightly, DeBlosi said it is in keeping with the building’s history.

“What visitors will see is a place that is still committed to that, preservation, so that 100 years from now visitors to Boston will be able to see the same sight that is here today,” DeBlosi said.

Brian Ballou can be reached at brian.ballou@globe.com.
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