Grange Hall in Riverhead seeks new life

First Parish Church is seeking tenants to renovate the historic Northville building. (Barbaraellen Koch photo)

In the course of its 182-year existence in Riverhead, Grange Hall on Sound Avenue has undergone various reincarnations: It’s been a place of worship, a school, a social hub for local farmers, and, most recently, a meetinghouse for several different groups. 

Now, nearly two centuries after it was originally built, the hall’s owner, First Parish Church, hopes an individual or organization can once again breathe new life into the historic space, which needs up to $150,000 worth of repairs.

Two weeks ago, the church published a request for proposals expressing its desire to find a social enterprise, nonprofit or philanthropic venture to rent the nondescript, Federalist-style structure — and, the church hopes, revitalize the building, which sorely needs a new boiler, foyer floor and numerous windows.

“We can really afford nothing at this point in time,” said church pastor Dianne Rodriguez.

One of the main reasons, she said, is that in recent years the First Parish Church’s congregation, which in the early 20th century was composed primarily of many Northville farmers and their families, has dwindled to its current membership of approximately 25.

“One hundred, even 50 years ago, that church served a farming community that stretched up and down Sound Avenue,” said local historian Richard Wines. “Virtually all the Protestants who lived on that road went to that church. In subsequent years, the farming community has largely dissipated.”

The Grange’s ceiling in need of repair in 2011. The building could need up to $150,000 in renovations. (Barbaraellen Koch file photo)

Pastor Rodriguez said the church is open to all potential tenants for the hall but would especially welcome a nonprofit organization that “nurtured itself and its own passion, whatever that passion may be — something they wanted to share with the community.”

“This is an investigatory process, the RFP,” said Roz Calvert, an East End consultant who prepared the RFP and has petitioned to get Grange Hall listed with the National Register of Historic Places — a move that, she said, would make the building eligible for many preservation grants.

“The hall has been under-utilized for a long time and is drifting into disrepair,” she said. “It needs to be revitalized by having a new tenant and new activity in there.”

Mr. Wines said he believes the two-story structure, which contains a large kitchen and meeting room and a small theater on its upper floor, would once again make a “great school.”

Grange Hall, built in 1831 as the original sanctuary for the First Parish Church, was transformed into Northville Academy in 1860, Mr. Wines said.

In 1861, the academy boasted an enrollment of 174 students, the largest of any school in Suffolk County at that time, he said.

Northville Academy was closed in 1872 and reopened in 1882, Mr. Wines said. It operated until 1890, before shutting down for good.

For most of its existence, however, Grange Hall was just that, Mr. Wines said — a de facto community center for local farmers who belonged to the National Grange, a nonprofit organization that advocates for rural America and agriculture.

In 2011, the hall was used as a homeless shelter for Maureen’s Haven on Monday nights and as a site for lectures by The Nature Lyceum, a Westhampton environmental group headed by Jeff Frank.

Mr. Frank died last year, Pastor Rodriguez said.

Asked why Grange Hall hasn’t been able to secure a permanent tenant in recent years — one who has the financial means to make the necessary repairs — Pastor Rodriguez said the hall went through a period where it was used by several different organizations, none of which had the money to enter into a long-term lease.

“It’s a building that’s greatly tied to the people and fabric of the community,” she said.

According to its RFP, First Parish Church will begin evaluating applications from potential lessees in April before reaching a final decision in June.

What if the church can find no suitable potential tenants?

“We’re going to keep trying until we do,” Pastor Rodriguez said. “If those walls could tell stories we would see a history of the community. I’d like to see the Grange come back to life and even live into the next century.”

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