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Project
North Church, Portsmouth, NH

Architects
Samyn-D'Elia Architects, Ashland, NH

Contractor
Milestone Engineering & Construction, Concord, NH

Steeplejack
American Steeple & Tower Co., Salem, MA

By Eve M. Kahn

I'm standing at the highest point in Portsmouth, NH, near the top tier of an 1855 steeple built by shipwrights along the town square. The view spans across brick commercial blocks and clapboarded waterfront cottages, and the lacy trusswork along the horizon – on harbor cranes and the tops of bridges over rivers and inlets – seems to have been composed by a talented landscape artist. The breeze is stiff up there, but that's not why I have to hurry down the narrow wooden ladders. The hands on the 1893 steeple clock are closing in on noon, and I don't want my eardrums near the belfry's 1863 bell that echoes across town.

My climb up could have been unsafe just over a year ago. The tapered 195-ft. tower crowns North Church, designed by Boston-based ecclesiastical architects Towle & Foster, which has just undergone a thrifty $1.5 million restoration. Half the funding came from the congregation's members, and the rest from concerned citizens around the country – 670 individual grants flowed in, ranging from $1 to $30,000, and the city chipped in $100,000. Much of the money arrived in summer 2006, after a July storm nearly dealt North Church a deathblow.

"The steeple timbers were so rotted you could put your fist right through, and the sheathing was turning to powder," says Bob Levesque, head of American Steeple & Tower Co., which has rebuilt the spire. When the storm hit, his crews had fortunately just started adding 16x18-in. timber reinforcements at the base. Without those Douglas fir patches, he says, "the whole structure would probably have been totally leveled."

North Church had reached such a dire state partly because its surface seemed to be aging rather gracefully. Many of the condition problems were indeed largely cosmetic: delivery trucks over the years had mangled some ornate iron fence posts around the site, Lexan sheets on the 1890 arched windows had clouded, and the clock faces were paint-clogged. A fifth of the mortar on the brick base was failing, however, and brownstone trim was spalling. Worst of all, no one could figure out why rust stains kept forming on the steeple, despite fresh whitewashing every few years.

The congregation was founded by British colonists in 1671, and North Church is its fourth home (the others burned or were razed). In spring 2006, they hired Levesque for detective work. "We rigged up a bosun's chair and spent five days on a complete inspection, opening up areas to figure out what was really going wrong," he says. The underlying fault: well-intentioned restorers in 1910 had laid copper panels over rusting Victorian layers of steel sheet metal. The copper installers, says Levesque, "clad the steeple from the top down, without overlapping pieces, putting in lock-seam joints, or burying fasteners. They just slid each piece up under the one right above it and then face-nailed everything, so water got in and condensation formed. The rust was just dripping down from between the incompatible metals. That gave the steeple an awful orange-y look." David Baer, the project superintendent at Milestone Engineering & Construction, speculates that when restoration began in April 2006, "probably just the metal was holding everything up."

The July storm felled the new scaffolding and timbers along with much of the old wood; the gilded pineapple finial smashed to the pavement. "But it was a godsend that no one was killed," Baer notes; the pelting rain had driven almost everyone indoors during the rush-hour squall. After the skies cleared, the sight of the sheared-off spire "certainly galvanized support" for the restoration, Jameson French, the chair of the project's nonprofit support arm, the Market Square Steeple Fund Campaign, told WMUR, a local television station. "The decapitation of the steeple," he added, "was such a shock to people."

TV and newspaper reporters started tracking every step in North Church's recovery, until the 23K-gold-leafed weathervane was at last hoisted back into place. Dramatic moments kept occurring along the way: "The city closed the streets a dozen times for us, everyone was very supportive and invested in getting it done right," says Baer. On windier days though, the job site was often quiet, because crews could not safely work on the exterior. There were days, Levesque told WMUR, "you couldn't even put a piece of copper down, because the wind would take it." In addition to the high-profile tower work, the restoration team subtly spiffed up the church base and interior.

Cassidy Bros. Forge of Rowley, MA, replaced lost fence sections and their granite-block bases. Northeast Masonry of Bow, NH, repointed brickwork and built up sedimentary layers of mortar patches wherever brownstone had spalled. Milestone hand-excavated the dirt basement by 1.5 feet, poured a concrete slab floor, replaced a 25-year-old oil furnace with a propane-fired forced-air system, and replaced brick piers with steel columns.

To brighten the vaulted main sanctuary, Milestone replaced yellowed Lexan window coverings with vented, tempered glass storm panels (from Granite State Glass in Gilford, NH). Quarter-sawn oak floors and mahogany pew trim have been refinished to high polish. The dark woodwork contrasts with high-relief whitewashed ornament overhead: the balcony rests on deep scrollwork brackets and cylindrical columns with lotus-leaf capitals, and thickets of leaves spiral around the ceiling medallions. (Evidence has turned up, Baer reports, that gilding and stenciling lie underneath the whitewash; recreating those delicate patterns, he says, "could be another huge undertaking for the church.")

Much historic fabric has even survived in the once-decapitated steeple. Amid webs of unpainted beams and trusses in the attic, Milestone gently wove a ventilation duct the length of the building. Behind new laminated-glass clock faces, new tongue-and-groove paneling shelters a refurbished original clockworks from Boston maker E. Howard & Co. The church keeps the original Howard instructions posted on the wall; clock winders are perplexingly reminded, "Pull out the pin that goes through the centre-wheel, and into a hole in a plate that has 60 holes." Right outside the clockworks closet, representatives of the restorers, congregation members and fundraisers all signed and dated a wooden wall in 2007. They wrote a motto, too: "Restored with pride and the support of the entire Portsmouth community." TB

 

 

 
 

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