Traditional Repair of the Abyssinian Meetinghouse

Built in 1828, the Abyssinian Meetinghouse is the third oldest African American meetinghouse in the country.  PTF was fortunate to join the restoration project in 2005, removing the tenement apartments inside, and repairing the king post truss frame.  In 2010, we rebuilt the cornice, and completed the roof and basement phases.

In October 2010, archaeologists dug around the site, looking for evidence of a former spring and well, while we completed the replacement of the front gable sill.  We cut and fit the scarf joinery first, before jacking up the building and replacing the sill section by section.  We knew the old sill needed to be replaced, but we were stunned by the extent of the rot.  When I see a building of this size resting on such a severely deteriorated framing member, I am reminded of the superior stability and longevity of timber-framed buildings, especially when combined with traditional sheathing and trim.

Meetinghouse with a capital "M"

Meetinghouse with a capital "M"

The photo to the left was taken from the inside of the building after finishing the sill installation and roughing out the front windows.  I’ve shown it here because there are a number of uncovered architectural elements that identify this formerly forlorn structure as an historic New England Meetinghouse.  The king post truss, the triangle at the top, was the height of open-span engineering in 1828.  The king post, the vertical member in the middle, in combination with the struts, the diagonal members radiating from the center, helps to support the long and heavy rafters that make up the roof.  The king post also supports the center of the 36 foot tie beam, the long horizontal member, with an interesting joint called a wedged half dovetail.  The tie beam “ties” the eave walls together, and allows the timber-framed building to have an enormous open span, capable of holding the large audiences that came to listen to abolitionists like Frederick Douglass.

At the front of the building, two enormous windows have been roughed out, architecturally identifying the building as a meetinghouse from the exterior.  It is unclear whether these windows were planned when the building was framed.  The studs adjacent to the outside edges of the windows were originally placed where the centers of the windows are today.  These studs were taken out of their original pockets and used as jack studs to support the original window frames.  Along the eaves of the building, posts and studs were notched out where the corners of the original window sat indicating that the builders assembled the frame, and added these large windows after.  The evidence we used to determine the size and location of the windows can still be seen today, contact the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian for a tour.

In November, we began restoring the front facade.  The 8′ by 4′ plank frame windows framing the entrance were made with mahogany using mortise and tenon joinery. For more about plank frame windows, this article, from Newport, is pretty good.  We clad the original sheathing with rift-cut and skived clapboards.  David Paul, Treasurer of the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian, graciously allowed us to use his photos to document the process.  If you are interested in donating to the project, please visit

Click on the photos below for a complete description of the process:

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  1. Pingback: It really tied the barn together | Preservation Timber Framing

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