Betty Dunn: Saving Searles Chapel & School
Updated: Feb 29
Have you ever been inside the Searles School & Chapel on the east side of Windham? Just after Delahunty Garden Center on Range Road, sits the building that was designed in the “Gothic Revival style by the preeminent English expatriate architect Henry Vaughan.” The building is a priceless gem for the residents of Windham. When you do go there, look up at the beautiful, barrel-shaped curved ceilings in stunning cypress wood. There are amazing stained glass windows and then listen as the bells ring bright, stunning tones. The Searles School & Chapel is a treasure and a cherished piece of history.
When Betty Dunn gave me the opportunity to ring the bells at the historic Searles School & Chapel, I jumped at it. She is one of the town trustees of the 1907 Windham landmark and a cheerleader for the dire repairs that the building needs. At a recent town meeting, she and fellow trustee, Mike Mazalewski gave a talk about the problems with the roof that has resulted in a ‘band-aid’ fix to keep one of the two-foot granite stones from falling out. The first sign of trouble was realized when chunks of mortar were found on the front steps. Never a good sign.
Betty and Mike were at the meeting early this year to talk about the $300,000 bond article that would be needed to make the repairs to the tower roof. In the presentation they gave, they talked about how the Searles building is a revenue-generating property owned by the town, and that half of the bond money needed would be paid from the proceeds of event rentals. Betty explains, “It is used by townspeople and out-of-town people for birthday parties, wedding showers, family reunions and mercy meals and christening parties, funerals, whatever. That’s just the rentals. Then the community groups like the group you’re in, Windham Women's Business Connection. Right now, this schoolroom is set up for the auditions for the Windham Actors Guild.”
Betty and I made a date to meet at the building, take a tour, and work our way to the top and ring those historic bells. While I thought that I was getting some sort of privilege to be allowed to do that, she, in fact, will give the tour to any and all who want it. Betty selflessly advocates for the building and talks of it in a loving way as she talks about the history and the renovations the building has had.
At one point in its history, Searles was a kindergarten school where Betty’s own children attended, and it has been the site of a seventh and eighth-grade school when the Center School became too crowded. “There are people in town who are still around and went to school here.”
This is not the first time that Betty and her fellow trustees and townspeople who care about its history have been involved with saving the school. “The sad fact in the 1950s when they were using it as a school, they decided they needed to modernize it. Make it more fuel-efficient.”
We walk up the stairs to what seems to be a choir loft, and she explained that the kids arts and crafts supplies were stored up there. “When I first came here for the kindergarten, from up here, you would look into a sea of insulation hiding the gorgeous ceiling up above.”
“In the 1950s they renovated, and they ripped out stained glass windows, just one wall in each room-all the south facing in the chapel and the west facing in the classroom. Some of them went to the dump. They replaced them with aluminum storm windows.” She laughs at that seemingly crazy idea for a building that in 1982 was added to the National Register of Historic Places. “They put a drop ceiling in and fluorescent lights hanging down.” All I can do is just shake my head.
“In the late 1980s, early 1990s, there was a structural problem in this room. A lot of Tudor style buildings have this problem, and the town condemned the building and kicked the kids out. It was the structure of the building. The building was spreading.”
She continues with the story of the ‘historic match.’
“Some people wanted to burn it down. Including the guy who was the building inspector at that time. There’s a famous quote; he wanted to bring a historic match over here. There was a campaign, and I was involved, and we got the town to spend $100,000 to do a renovation and start the restoration, which was our goal.”
Peter Griffin is the chairman of the Searles School & Chapel Trustees. Along with that, Peter is the town moderator and a town activist. He has served on a dozen committees along with Searles School since 1975. He explains that the intent to transform the building from an educational purpose to another purpose was precedent-setting. We spoke on the phone. “People didn’t look at old buildings for other purposes. They demolished them, or they wasted away. In the old days, you didn’t have a lot of great places to have an event as we do now. When we first began the restoration and renovation, we had to really think about how we are going to use this building that we had saved. The board of trustees thought, why not use it as a place to get revenue but also to broaden the building to a place in the town to utilize in general.” He added, “The constant comment I hear around town from people is, I want Windham to keep its rural charm.” Peter Griffin believes the constant in the town is the old buildings like the Searles School.
Margaret Case is another local resident and an angel who, on her own, raised money to have the stained glass windows restored. Betty said, “There are plaques all around, and she got donations. She got the money to have them restored, which is a painstaking and expensive business.” Betty adds that Margaret also paid to have the heating grates restored.
And now, the building is in need again. Betty explains. “During last summer, we knew we had a problem with the tower. There's been water coming down in various places inside and outside of the tower. There had originally been a copper roof on the inside the top of the tower, and that had failed early on. Somewhere in the 1950s, they put another roof over it, and that had leaked off and on over the years. It’s now failing. We just need to replace the whole thing. We got quotes to have the tower roof repaired, and we were going for a grant on that so we wouldn’t have to take out another bond. We started that last spring. But one day, we found chunks of mortar on the front steps. It turns out we had major issues. There was one stone that was out of place, and that’s when we put the ‘Band-Aid’ up to hold that one stone in place. The rest of the area around it is not good. We had various people come to look at it and got estimates to fix it. This is not your average stone veneer building. We knew then we had to go for a bond once we got the real estimates. We heard a worse case number but we are now satisfied that we can do this for $300,000, or less, to repair the roof and the stonework. But it will involve somebody going up in a lift or putting upstaging or scaffolding. It won’t be that long a project.”
From the choir loft, we climb a set of stairs to a small Tudor style door. I tell Betty that I had a dream the night before about going into small Hobbit-sized doors with her. This door could be from my dream.
Inside this bell-ringing room are the sallies or cords that are suspended on hooks, and each one of the twelve wool and hemp cords reaches up through the ceiling and attaches to the bells which are in fact, cast bronze chimes. Betty starts to play the chimes grabbing the wool handles that wraps the cord and are striped in colors of red, white, and green. One is solid blue, and one is a solid red. She pulls the ropes and creates music.
“At the time when this was used as a school. There was another rope tied, and the bells were used as the recess bell.” I pull the cords. C-sharp, F, G-natural. “There’s a limitation on what you can play on this because there are only 12 notes. You’ve got an A-scale, A, B, C-sharp, D, D-sharp, F-sharp, G-sharp, and two more. You can play old fashioned hymns. But you don’t have a B-flat. You’re in the key of A. For example, Christmas Eve, there was a church that rented the place, and they wanted music, and I said I’d play some music. I played “Good King Wenceslas,” you can do that but you can’t do “Silent Night.” I can do “America the Beautiful,” but I can’t do “The Star-Spangled Banner” because of the range. I sit at my house and my piano and I figure the notes."
“We had a woman come here to look at the bells around 2000. She walked in the doorway here and said, “Oh my, I have never seen anything like this except in fifteenth-century English chapels.” She was so excited about the ‘sallies.’ (The cords used to ring the bells.) These are replacements and are about a year old. They are hemp and wool. I had to find someone to replace them. I went online, and you could only order them in England. The way you do it, you give them the measurement from the eye hook to the frame and down. I’ve not found anything like this in the US. The three-ply hemp rope is strung across a big room, and they stuff the wool in between the plies, and they have a machine that turns it and twists it and the wool is held in between the plies by the tension. We saved the old ones, but they are in terrible shape.”
“Where else do you get to learn this stuff? I give tours, and we get kids up here, and I let them wail away at the bells. Where else can they get that kind of experience? It’s awesome. It’s so much fun. But, these are not technically bells. You can see the mechanism. They are cast bronze tubular chimes. Probably made in Methuen. When you pull on the rope, it brings down a hammer to hit the chime.”
Betty pulls a sallie, and a tone from the bell carries through the air. “You don’t get this everywhere. Isn’t that cool?” She’s right. It is very cool.
On Tuesday, March 10, there will be a March Ballot Vote. Article 6 is the ask for the bond measure to be passed. All five of the Board of Selectman have unanimously endorsed this measure. I hope you will as well, and show up to vote on March 10 and say yes to Article 6.
For questions, comments, ideas, and challenges, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or
visit my website, www.BeverlyStoddart.com. You can also contact the newspaper through the website,
www.WindyIndy.com. Kind regards, Bev.
Published: Thursday, February 27, 2020