Open the door to Maine’s South Solon Meeting House and Wow! Neither the classically influenced colonial, white-clapboard architecture nor the serene location on a rural crossroads in a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it town hint about what’s inside. Built in 1842, and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the South Solon Meeting House retains its original podium, box pews, choir loft, windows, and steeple, but it’s been completely frescoed, floor to ceiling, with interdenominational religious scenes.
The first time I visited I walked around gape-mouthed, trying to make sense of the jarring disconnect between prim exterior and racy interior, primitive design and contemporary decor, while taking in the equally disconnected scenes screaming for my attention.
Let’s start at the beginning. The open-minded founders of the South Solon Meeting House stipulated that “the house [be] opened freely on weekdays, when requested, for conference meetings and for lectures and addresses on all religious benevolent, moral and scientific subjects.” So the building never was purely a house of God.
As with many such buildings, it deteriorated over the years. In the 1930s, Helen and Williard Cummings of Skowhegan lead a community effort to save it. In 1946, Willard, a portrait artist, together with Henry Varnum Poor and Sidney Simon, founded the nearby Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, a summer artist residency program that specialized in frescoes (and still does).
In the 1950s, student Margaret Day Blake took a shine to the meeting house. With the school’s support, she offered 13 fellowships to young, professional artists, selected from three national juried competitions, to paint the interior. The winners—Sigmund Abeles, Alfred Blaustein, Edwin Brooks, Ashley Bryan, Williard Cummings, Sidney Hurwitz, William King, Tom Mikkelson, Anne Poor, Henry Varnum Poor, Judith Shuman, Sidney Simon and John Wallace—were told:
“There shall be no limitation of subject matter; however, bearing in mind the religious character of the building, which has been non-sectarian from its inception, it’s suggested that the New and Old Testaments offer rich and suitable subject matter. This material should be interpreted in imaginative terms which allow complete freedom to develop symbols, associations, or legends.”
Now some people might think the result isn’t proper for a meeting house, but I believe the founders of the South Solon Meeting House would have approved of this odd juxtaposition of color and image on their colonial building. It’s certainly thought provoking, and it invites lingering a little longer, if not in contemplative prayer than simply in wide-eyed wonder.
Since 1956, The South Solon Historical Society has cared for the meeting house, located on the corner of the South Solon and Meetinghouse Roads, north of Route 43 and east of Route 201. Preservation and maintenance is an ongoing struggle. While the Board seeks to further promote use of the building for cultural events and community life, the most pressing concern at this time is the need to repair the damage and deterioration wrought by the passage of time and weather, and create an endowment for future maintenance.
And a few more images…