The trustees of Edgartown’s stately, pillared Methodist Church have voted to transfer ownership of the building to the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Preservation Society. The gift of the 137-year-old church of whaling days ends years of struggle by the small congregation to keep the building, and opens the way to the creation of the largest year-round auditorium on the Island.
Officials of the society said this week they will install a heating system in the large upper sanctuary and make renovations which will permit its use for a variety of productions. Dr. Paul Anderson, president of the society, said yesterday his group will begin a fund raising drive within weeks to pay for needed maintenance and renovations.
The small Methodist congregation, which has met in the building since its construction in 1843, will continue to use the church for worship and fellowship. The transfer of ownership, however, relieves the 50 active members of what has become an awesome financial burden.
“There’s just no way we can repair that building,” said Richard Brown, chairman of the church’s administrative board. Mr. Brown was once of the church members who approached the preservation society with the gift proposal. He said yesterday that even painting the building is impossible for his group. The church was last painted in 1973.
“We’ve got an estimate of $30,000 to paint it.” Mr. Brown said yesterday. “The last time it was done it cost $9,000 and he said he lost money on it. It think this time it will mean taking it all down to bare wood.”
Also in need of repair is the clock tower, rising 92 feet above Edgartown’s Main street. But the clock tower repair may come from the town, which owns the clock and has traditionally cared for the tower that houses it.
Both Mr.  Brown and Dr. Anderson said the building is structurally very sound and in need of little repair to the 50-foot, pegged red pine beams that support the building.
The massive, hand-hewn beams were brought to the Vineyard from Maine in 1842 on the whaling bark Rhine, at the height of the prosperity brought by whalebone and oil. Captain John O. Morse, a member of the church and of the building committee, skippered the Rhine when she carried the lumber for the Greek-influenced church in Edgartown harbor.
An Island architect, Frederick Baylies, designed the building and it was built by shipbuilders who put together as they would a whaler bound for the Arctic grounds. The 50-foot beams were joined with splicing - with wooden pegs and square joints to support the square bell tower which still juts high above Edgartown’s trees and dominates the skyline.
The construction was financed through the sale of pews which were passed down through generations of Methodist families. The original box pews are still in the sanctuary numbered as they were then, and electrified whale oil lamps hang above them.
At its dedication on October 10, 1843, Dr. Minor Raymond was then principal of Wilbraham Academy and he preached from the book of Acts, 28th chapter, 22nd verse. What was then the Methodist Episcopal church was filled with people from all parts of the Island celebrating the occasion.
The new owners of the building hope for the same kind of Island-wide participation in 1980.
“We’re hoping we can get broad community support because we intend it to be used by the whole Island community,” Jane Tomassian said this week. Mrs. Tomassian is the society’s executive director.
“We want to get away from our identification as strictly an Edgartown group,” she said. The society owns the Dr. Daniel Fisher House adjacent to the church and the Vincent House on the Fisher House grounds. It also owns the Ritter House in Vineyard Haven, which now houses the offices of the Island’s school superintendent.
The acquisition of the church, Mrs. Tomassian said, means the society is no longer a “small, local group.”
“We’re a major Island organization now,” she said. “The congregation came to us and selected us to inherit their building and maintain it. That’s a start in itself.
“There are definite increased responsibilities associated with it, but we feel the benefits far outweigh the costs. We hope that whatever structures we preserve will become living structures of the community today.
“Contrast that with something like Old Sturbridge Village, which is recreated history,” Mrs. Tomassian said. “We want our buildings to be part of the Island life.”
Dr. Paul Anderson, the society’s president, agreed with Mrs. Tomassian’s view, and said he feels the gift of the church means his group has earned itself a reputation for sensitivity and care.
“The society was quiet appreciative that the Methodist church people had confidence in our ability to preserve the church and allow the community to use it,” he said.
“I think everyone would agree that building is the single most important one in Edgartown and it happens to be contiguous to other things we already have. It gives us an opportunity to preserve one important piece of Edgartown’s Main street.”
Dr. Anderson also sees a potential for Island-wide cooperation with the use of the renovated, 600-seat sanctuary. With the heating system installed and the upper floor usable, the church will become the largest meeting hall on the Island, far larger than Tisbury’s Katharine Cornell Hall, which is used in a similar fashion.
“Anything we can do to encourage a sense of common purpose on the Island is to the good,” Dr. Anderson said yesterday. “We hope things can be done here with an all-Island significance with the Methodist church, it can be accomplished in other areas. Ultimately, we have to be more regional.
Dr. Anderson said the society hopes to raise the funds to renovate and restore the new acquisition to drive to begin this summer, with the goal of installing a heating system by this winter. Both interior and exterior painting is needed and he said he hopes both can be completed this year.
Other planned changed to the building include an enlargement of the platform area to accommodate a greater variety of stage performances, addition of an exit stairway to the rear of the building, and installation of a lift to assist handicapped people using the hall.
“We add all these things up,” he said, “and we don’t know what the total will be. It’s going to be reasonably sizable.
“We’re going to have to ask everyone to help out and hope for the best, but I think this proposal has a certain popular appeal.”
Dr. Anderson said the society will call the church “The Old Whaling Church” in an attempt to get away from the distinction as solely a Methodist building.
The building’s congregation, which was near disbanding 10 years ago because of its inability to maintain the church, will continue to meet in the sanctuary and in the chapel on the ground floor. Newly assigned pastors Lee and Helen Oliver will have use of the minister’s study and the congregation will pay a proportionate share of the heating and lighting expenses.