EFFINGHAM – In what officials are calling “a pretty big deal” for this small community, the town and the Effingham Preservation Society have received a $165,000 Land and Community Heritage Investment Program matching grant to repair, restore and rehabilitate a very special building.
It began life as the New England Masonic Charitable Institute, the only school in the country known to have been built and run by the Masons, according to the National Register of Historic Places.
Erected in 1858, the building was used from 1861 through the 1880s for the three-year, co-educational regional boarding school. From 1891-2005, the structure served as Effingham’s town hall and shared space with the Effingham Public Library, which for the past 15 years has been the sole occupant of that space.
Effingham Selectman Chuck Fuller is heading the effort to bring the New England Masonic Charitable Institute back to its former glory.
“The more I learn about this building, the more intrigued I am by it and there’s so much that people don’t know,” Fuller said.
The second floor houses the temple of the Charter Oak Lodge No. 58 of Free and Accepted Masons, which built the Charitable Institute and in 1891 sold it to the town of Effingham for $1, though it retained rights in perpetuity to the temple.
A colorful mixture of trompe l’oeil murals and Masonic mystery, the temple is the highlight of Fuller’s tours of the building.
He said the LCHIP funding will be used to complete Phase 1 of the project, which has an estimated cost of $355,000. That involves repair of historic windows on the first floor, installation of storm windows throughout, installation of insulation; electric and lighting upgrades and lead paint remediation, including of the six-story, 86-foot bell tower.
Phase 2, expected to cost $155,000, will cover the repair of 20 more historic windows, energy efficiency improvements, renovation of two bathrooms, wiring and lighting upgrades and a plan to re-hang the 1863 cast bell in the tower so that it rings.
Phase 3 has a price tag of $360,000 and would wrap up in 2025. It is to include the rehanging of the bell, the installation of an elevator between the first and second floors and restoration of the rear double-door entry.
Fuller said the Masons were known in the mid-19th century for providing what today would be called social services. They built orphanages and homes for widows and the aged.
According to a 2019 report prepared by Christopher P. Williams Architects of Meredith, the Charitable Institute opened in the fall of 1861 under principal Rev. Elbridge Pepper with 55 students.
The curriculum included English, Latin, Greek, German, and French, U.S. history, algebra, geometry, chemistry, botany, geology, physiology, mental philosophy, rhetoric and geography. Music, painting, drawing and penmanship were also taught.
Subjects cost between $1 and $5 per semester and board ranged from $1.38 to $3 per week; fuel and lights were an extra 72 cents.