First Parish restoration earning excellent marks

Second of two parts.

First Parish: an icon returned to the city.	Peggy Mullen photoFirst Parish: an icon returned to the city. Peggy Mullen photo

Two Dorchester organizations have been chosen to receive Preservation Achievement Awards by the Boston Preservation Alliance (BPA). The Dorchester Historical Society and First Parish Church will accept their awards at a ceremony at Faneuil Hall next month.

Greg Galer, executive director of the BPA, said member organizations make nominations for the award. The architectural firm for First Parish, McKinley, Kaslow and Associates, nominated the church, and the project was chosen because of a number of factors, Galer said: “The quality of the craftsmanship and the working relationship with the North Bennett Street School were key in the choice. Also the variety of organizations where they got the money. It’s a long-range project, and the before-and-after is really amazing. When the steeple comes down, you worry it will never go back up, but it’s amazing. It returns an icon to the city.”

Last week, we looked at the Historical Society; today, it’s the restoration effort at First Parish Church.

It’s the story of a steeple, and of the church below

“Taking the steeple down was a huge leap of faith,” said Jillian Adams of Building Legacy LLC, who served as project consultant from 2010 to 2014. It was also a matter of reality: There was a fear that it would topple off the building if it didn’t get fixed.

Adams, who has worked in preservation-related fields for about 20 years, helps faith-based and non-profit clients to preserve their historic buildings. “The plan was always to return the steeple,” she said, “ but when it came down, the church didn’t have the resources to put it back up.” In addition, the congregation faced the reality that the entire building needed repairs after years of deferred maintenance. Cognizant of the building’s historic importance, parishioners committed themselves to a full restoration.

“I was working with the group before Rev. [Arthur] Lavoie came, and one of the first things he had to do was grow the congregation to even consider a project of that size,” said Adams. Added Rev. Lavoie: “We ended up spending a half million dollars just taking the top of the steeple down. That was a real sticker shock. We thought that raising the rest was doable, but what we found is that this is a multi-million and multi-year project.”

“About five years ago, the church formed the steering committee to develop funding sources to complete the restoration. Part of it factioned off into the building committee and I was elected chair,” said congregation member Michael Baldwin, who brought the requisite skill set to the task. He is a regional property manager with a background in construction and management. “I agreed to one year, and it turned into five,” he said.

The architectural firm McGinley, Kalsow and Associates, Inc. began Phase 1 in 2011 by identifying the urgently needed repairs and conducting a comprehensive building conditions assessment and creating a long-range preservation plan. That year, the congregation also secured funding from National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Unitarian Universalist funding Program, the Henderson Foundation, and the Massachusetts Historical Commission Emergency Fund.

But it wasn’t enough; the projected cost was $5.2 million. So the congregation looked to its own resources, in particular a collection of 17th and 18th century silver, which had long been stored in a vault at the Museum of Fine Arts, and decided to sell it off. “It was a hard decision,” said Rev. Lavoie.

“The silver was donated, mostly through wills,” said Rev. Lavoie. “They were donated to churches, much like giving money for an endowment. They were tankards, standing cups, not like a chalice or what we would think of as being used in a church communion service. Our 27 pieces were in a vault at the MFA, and it had been at least 30 or 40 years since they had been taken out to be viewed. And yet, we had this deteriorating building, and if we didn’t take care of it, we would lose our current life and our community services and programs. These are much more important than a collection of silver that was not part of church life.”

Still, it was not an easy decision. “It was a year-long process among the board and church leaders and congregation, culminating in a corporate meeting of all the members to vote. It was nearly unanimous – there was only one abstention,” said Rev. Lavoie. Added Baldwin, “The process of selling the silver was arduous and took a lot of time and planning. For me it was less about holding onto something in the past and more about putting that resource toward the future. It was just sitting at the MFA gathering dust. Most members of the congregation had never seen it.”

The sale of the silver netted $1.08 million at an auction in New York in January 2012, the highest price ever for a set of colonial church silver.

Phase 2, involving urgent repairs to the exterior of the building, commenced later that year as work on chimneys, wooden parapets, metal urns, wood caps and finials and some windows, along with trip and copper flashing was completed. Other exterior work included repairs to clapboards, sills and trim work, as well as painting. On the inside of the church, a new bathroom was installed, and some repairs were done on the sanctuary.

For all that, the steeple was still sitting on the ground. But help was at hand.

Second-year students from the North Bennett Street School had been working on the windows during Phase 2. The school, which was founded in 1885 by education advocate Pauline Agassiz Shaw to help immigrant groups find gainful employment, has evolved into a highly regarded institution for hands-on training in traditional trades and fine craftsmanship. Now, as the project moved into its third phase, the students turned their attention to the steeple. In early 2013, they set up shop inside a temporary structure made of scaffolding and plastic cobbled together on a vacant lot next to the church, where the lantern section of the steeple had been placed. Jillian Adams described what happened next:

“You pay them a per diem for every day on the site, and pay for the cost of the materials. They were able to restore and put back in place the steeple for $250,000. If we had done it the traditional way, with a contractor and paid full market, it would’ve cost a million dollars, easy. The school figured they subsidized the project for about $750,000, and that’s just the steeple. They also worked on 31 windows.”

Baldwin said the contribution by the school went well beyond time and money. “Rich Friburg and his students have done an amazing job. They’ve given so much to us. Rich has not only been a great teacher and the leader of the effort, but he’s also been a great consultant to us on a lot of the restoration items.”

Finally, in August 2013, the big day arrived. The steeple was returned to its perch and Rev. Lavoie, sitting in the bucket of a crane high above the crowd, gave a reading from Psalm 90, the same verse that had been recited when the church was dedicated in 1897: “We raise this steeple to its perch at the top of our meetinghouse so that it may once again be a beacon of hope and welcoming for the people of Dorchester and all who see it,” he said. “Seeing the steeple go up was one of the highlights,” said Baldwin. It had such an impact on the congregation and the neighborhood.”

The return of the steeple was a milestone, but the work continues, with Phases 4 and 5 – and a capital campaign – in the offing. Rev. Lavoie says they will look at how to tap into resources beyond the congregation, adding, “the church interior is next.” Noted Baldwin: “This last phase pretty much depleted available resources. Now we’re entering into a fundraising phase. We need another three million to finish what was initially planned.”

Long- range plans include bringing the building up to full accessibility standards, installing new bathrooms, a space for Sunday school, and a larger space for neighborhood use. An addition to the building is part of the plan to achieve these goals.

While the importance of the building and the longevity of the congregation is a matter of historical record, the church has always had deep roots in the community it serves.

“It’s much more than just wanting a building that looks nice,” said Rev. Lavoie. “The building has a lot of meaning for people who live in Dorchester and who have lived there, and the congregation is well aware of its historical importance. But it is larger than the actual membership of the congregation. It is also a civic center where a lot of groups meet. First Parish has always had the community’s well being as its central mission.”

Baldwin agrees. “This project might not have personal impact on everyone, but it’s about the community, about what the church brings to the hill. The presence of the church has value, and that alone is worth community involvement and support for the restoration.”
Adams said that faith was an important element in the process. “That was a kernel of its success. If the group didn’t have that, they wouldn’t have succeeded. They had to believe they could do it.”

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The church continues the work to revitalize the building and is looking to the community for help and support. Learn more at its website, firstparishdorchester.org.