Traditional Building Portfolio




Revolutionary Concepts

Christ Church, Philadelphia, PA

Frens and Frens, LLC, West Chester, PA; Dale Frens, principal in charge; Carol J. Quigley, project architect

By Lynne Lavelle

Since its founding in 1695 as a condition of William Penn's Charter, Philadelphia's Christ Church has been extraordinary by every measure. It is perhaps best known as the birthplace of the American Episcopalian Church, and for its early congregations, which were a who's who of the Revolutionary era; attendees included George Washington, John Adams, Robert Morris and Benjamin Franklin. As for the building itself, the Christ Church of today was built between 1727 and 1744, and replaced a humble wooden church on the site. Among "new" Christ Church's many distinctions, the addition of the steeple in 1754 made it the tallest building in North America for a time. And today, it remains one of the finest examples of 18th-century Colonial architecture in the country and a National Historic Landmark that attracts more than 250,000 visitors each year.

"Christ Church would be on anyone's top-ten list of churches in America," says Dale Frens, principal in charge at Frens and Frens, LLC, of West Chester, PA. "It is so early – 1744 – and has such strong associations with the American Revolution and Independence Hall. From an architectural standpoint, it's such a great example of Georgian architecture in America. It's an English plan with the central Gibbsian steeple, and the arched windows and the brickwork, which reinforced the horizontal lines of the building, are all straight out of England."

Aside from two restorations in the 19th century, which altered the sanctuaries and the windows, the building's basic form remained unchanged over the years. Behind the visible finishes, structural steel reinforcing of the roof framing and the steeple timber framing had been designed by Nicholas Gianopoulos, PE, of Keast & Hood Co. and constructed in several phases from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. However by 2005, water damage and a lack of fire-safety upgrades had left the building vulnerable. That year, a night-time electrical fire – electronically detected and extinguished without causing damage – served as a warning. "There had been a raised awareness that the building was always at risk because it is a wood-framed structure," says Frens. "But a minor fire in the steeple made everyone even more aware of the danger. Fire-protection was urgent for self-evident reasons."

Combined with long-standing problems such as peeling paint and visible deterioration of brick and stone, the fire prompted the church to commission a team led by Frens and Frens to create a preservation plan. The firm devised five phases over 20 years, with the first 10 years focused on conservation of the building envelope and fire protection. Throughout the work, the church required that the building remain open for Sunday and Wednesday services as well as to visitors. "I grouped things together for the first 10 years that belonged together because they had shared general requirements and shared construction facilities, like scaffolding in particular," says Frens. "And so it seemed logical to carry out the building envelope and the fire-protection projects first."

To determine precisely the scope of work and the budget required, the firm conducted field surveys and used test panels from two whole bays of the façade. Despite their initial expense, the test panels paid for themselves. "The pedestals that support sections of the balustrade up at the roof had been covered with really thick white stucco – about 1½ inches – and as part of the test panel we removed that stucco and learned that the underlying brick was in very poor condition," says Frens. "Through this test panel process we learned that while we could replace the dented spun-copper balusters with new, smooth wood balusters – you couldn't tell the difference from the ground anyway. So as long as the existing sheet copper balusters could hold paint, they functionally served as well as the wood. And doing things that way saved more than $100,000."

The overall philosophy of the project was to preserve as much original or significant replacement material as possible. To that end, one of the firm's most positive discoveries from the test panels was that surviving wood portions of the balustrade were in better condition than expected and could be readily repaired. "The only real judgment calls during construction were the threshold of deterioration that would warrant replacement versus repair," adds Frens. "Water damage was a major factor."

As revealed by the test panels, the 20th-century stucco concealed severely deteriorated bricks. These were replaced with 15 custom brick shapes from The Stiles and Hart Brick Co. of Bridgewater, MA, who also supplied brick for refacing the parapet walls at the east gable end and pedestals that support the roof balustrade. Despite Christ Church's downtown location on 2nd Street above Market Street, the exterior masonry did not require cleaning. "It's a hard brick, so it sheds water fairly well," says Frens. "And the cornice projects a fair bit, which protects the walls. It's really a tribute to the quality of the original materials."

Cornice restoration included paint removal, repairs and replacement of severely damaged components with replicate Spanish cedar. Paint was stripped from all exterior stonework – balustrade and urn pedestal caps, parapet copings, and the one surviving east gable-end scroll. Wissahickon schist stonework was patched and repaired with Indiana Limestone and Barre, VT, granite.

Though the roof was in surprisingly good shape, several alterations helped simplify maintenance. To address the problem of clogged gutters and debris on the church roof, large new downspouts direct leaves to custom underground downspout strainers and collection boxes that can be opened and cleaned from the ground. "On both the north and south sides of the church there are large overhanging trees," says Frens, "and there has always been this problem of the gutters clogging up at the roof level. With this restoration, the leaves can be collected at the ground level rather than at the roof, which is safer and can be more reliably done." Saling Roofing, Inc. of Drexel Hill, PA, carried out the work, which also included flexible repairs to joints in the water diverters and improvements to the leader boxes.

Inside, the new sprinkler service and fire pump – with complete sprinkler coverage for the church and steeple – is powered by a new three-phase electric service in the adjacent parish house. The sanctuary is protected by a wet-pipe, double-interlock, pre-action system; this also serves the steeple's lower portion, while a dry-pipe deluge system protects the upper levels. The fire detection system controls each sprinkler head individually, and communicates with the central security room of Independence National Historical Park.

Because the whole interior of the church was scaffolded, the firm decided that it would be most cost-effective to also carry out repainting of the upper walls, woodwork and sanctuary (by Buttonwood Painting Co. of Warminster, PA). The current interior scheme is reflective of Thomas U. Walter's renovation from 1832-36. Walter did, however, have something much more dramatic in mind. "He actually recommended that the church be torn down," says Frens. "He felt that Colonial churches didn't lend themselves well to modern worship. But luckily, he was outvoted." Beam, Ltd. of Philadelphia consulted on the lighting for the sanctuary, and Museum Quality Restoration of Warwick, RI, supplied new custom wall sconces.

At the end of the 19th century, the original wood window sashes were replaced with leaded glass. These windows gave the building a Victorian feel, which the congregation voted to reverse when they were temporarily removed for restoration in the 1980s. "The congregation said, 'This is wonderful, let's leave them out,'" says Frens. "So the original clear-glazed wood sashes were put back." This time around, general contractor Haverstick-Borthwick Co. of Plymouth Meeting, PA, repaired the window frames in place and removed, restored and re-installed the sashes.

With the first two phases of this ongoing project complete, Christ Church's re-created balustrade pedestals and east gable-end brickwork look just as they did in William Strickland's 1811 painting. And against the odds, the general contractor was able to complete all interior construction between Christmas Day of 2007 and Good Friday of 2008 – while maintaining Christ Church's life-long record of never being closed for worship. TB



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