How To Guides

Preservation of Historic Churches: Assessing the Overall Project Scope as the First Step

June 20, 2007

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Maintaining historic churches represents a special challenge to worship communities.  Often, a church has suffered damage or general deterioration over time or decorative motifs have been changed.  Sometimes a committee is formed to address a particular issue, and a donor steps forward with a gift to fund it – say, interior rehabilitation.  There also may be an urgency to complete work by a special feast day or other significant date.  The urge to rush into a project should be resisted.  An entire facility should be reviewed, issues and related costs identified, and priorities established so that money spent for one project isn’t undone by later work.

A facility assessment and resulting construction should be done from the outside in.  Interior damage may be due to remote or hidden exterior causes that need to be addressed first.  Some of the things to look for can be either obvious or subtle and include:

»    Roofing, flashing, gutter, or downspout problems.problem with corniche
»    The effects of ivy – it looks charming but can cause tremendous damage!
»    Open mortar joints or previous masonry repairs with mortar that was to  strong for the brick or stone.
»    The lack of adequate ties between outer and inner veneers of masonry walls.
»    The quality and characteristics of the stone and brick originally used.
»    Leaking piping – particularly steam radiator piping – hidden in walls.
»    Rotted wooden floor joists or roof rafters where they attach to masonry walls.
»    Hazardous materials (asbestos, lead paint, etc.) 

tuck pointing problemHiring a team of professionals (architects, engineers, etc.) with a special knowledge of historic materials to prepare a facility assessment or historic master plan is important so that all of the causes and effects can be assessed before proceeding with construction.  Including a trusted contractor early in the process may also be helpful to provide special access equipment, as well as cost estimating.  Furnishing the professional team with as much information as possible is key.  Drawings, specifications, purchasing records, old photos, and other historic information in a church’s archives can provide valuable insight into problems and how they should be addressed.

At the interior, decorative schemes may have changed many times Problems with windowsduring a building’s history.  Often, these may be documented in photographs in a church’s archives or by parishioners.  Usually, those taken prior to the 1950s or 60s are black and white photos, so actual colors are unknown.  Discovering colors can be done by undertaking a decorative paint exposure study.  Based on the historical information, a qualified consultant helps determine what information is desirable, where in the church it will be found, what equipment (scaffold, lifts, etc.) will be needed, etc.  The paint on areas of walls or ceilings is then carefully removed, layer by layer, revealing both decorative motifs (stenciling, figures, etc.), as well as original colors in the various layers.  The colors are keyed to a universal color coding system and documented for future reference.  The information gained through this process, coupled with historic photos, can then be used to restore an interior to a specific period or allow original colors to be known and possibly used in an interior rehabilitation.  Similar procedures can be used to clean visible but dirty motifs and colors, and exposed areas can be touched up and left exposed to help spur fund raising.

Another issue is whether a church is officially designated as a historic structure, either on the National Register of Historic Places or locally by the city.  Listing on the National Register alone does not necessarily impose any restrictions.  More likely is a listing on a city’s heritage preservation list, which usually brings some form of building permit review and control over construction work to assure that the historic integrity of the building is not compromised.  Find out whether a church is historically designated and by which agency, what the restrictions and guidelines are, what submission deadlines are, etc. before proceeding with design work.  This will alleviate unexpected delays when applying for building permits.

towerA good facility assessment or historic master plan should thus include key historical information, the problems and issues discovered and to be addressed by construction work, the costs for each item, and the priority in which they should be accomplished.  If necessary, the team can recommend sequencing the work in phases over a number of years to accommodate funding availability.  Particular items can also be identified for special “gifting” opportunities and recognition.

Chuck Liddy, AIA, NCARB is a Principal with the firm of Miller Dunwiddie Architecture in Minneapolis, MN.  They have worked on numerous historic churches, including the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis and the Cathedral of St. Paul.


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