On the northeastern side of Penobscot Bay in downeast Maine sits the town of Castine, an elegant town with a rich history. Our crew was called into town because some structural issues had been detected in its First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church. Having never visited before I was struck by the town’s wealth of early American architecture. I feel that a short note on the town’s early turbulent history goes a long way to support much of the building’s history. Castine was originally settled as a trading post in 1613 by the French. However, it spent the next century being taken back and forth between the Colonists, British and French, with even the Dutch having control for a bit. After the French and Indian War the Maine coast was opened up to the Massachusetts colonists, only to have it re-seized by the British in the Revolutionary War, which eventually led to the Penobscot Expedition, one of the greatest losses in American naval history. It then was briefly returned to the colonies, in which time Castine became a town (separating from neighboring Penobscot in 1796). Castine was then again re-seized by the British in the War of 1812, where they controlled it for the length of the war.
In the years that followed Castine was able to prosper thanks to the booming fishing and timber industries that ran through the Penobscot River and Penobscot Bay, making Castine the perfect place for ship captains to build their dream homes
The First Parish church that we are working on had originally started construction in 1790 and became a meeting house in 1796 with a steeple protruding out from the front gable. However, it did not have a minister until 1798. These dates are important because they correspond with the timeline of the town. The people of the town were most inspired during that time when they were rallying to be their own town. The need for a place to meet was essential in becoming a community, and not another military post.
According to our research the original design had a steeple and tower box out front. The joinery layout supported the research because the bent that makes up the front gable wall is referenced to the inside of the building, in the same direction as the rest of the bents. Typically the reference face on the exterior southern bent is flipped around so that that all exterior walls are referenced to the outside of the building. Thus we can make the conclusion that there was a tower box bent in front of what now is the front gable, making it an interior bent at that time.
The building stayed this way until the prosperous town was at yet another turning point. The First Parish Church represented more liberal Unitarian beliefs, and in 1828, a more conservative religious offshoot was created, calling themselves “The New Trinitarian Society,” and founding the Trinitarian Congregational Parish. By 1831, in an effort to stay with the times, the First Parish church took the steeple off the front, and installed a Greek Revival belfry on top of the front gable. In some readings it is described as a “joyful crown” and is thought to be a Bulfinch design. Inside the tower box, the joinery again supports this history. Each of the hewn posts are joined by scarf joints to sawn timbers that extend the box higher into a hipped roof. The hipped roof was constructed with a truncated dragon and cross joint to carry the hipped rafter. Between the scarfed posts and the roof three new girts were installed. Two girts run perpendicular to the bents and one runs parallel to the front gable, off the second bent. All three girts are supported by ascending and descending 4×5” braces which run by each other to tie that level to the top plate.
The fourth girt that makes up the tower box was once a tie girt in the bent adjacent the original tower box. This tie girt is located approximately two feet below from the additional three girts. Floor joists are cogged over these girts, running perpendicular to the bents. Four bed timbers rest on that floor. The bed timbers support the eight posts that create the belfry. These posts are 10×10” white pine from the level of the bed timbers to the roof frame, then turn into columns with ionic capping at the top. The bed timbers are in a concentric square inside of the girt level, their weight and the weight of the belfry posts supported by the floor joists, rather than directly over the girts. This caused the girts to roll in towards the interior.
In the first half of 2012, Castine contacted PTF about a leaky roof. Since the posts penetrate the hipped roof, it creates eight holes in the roof that need to be flashed with the utmost care, so that water cannot run down the post and sit on the bed timbers, rotting out both the bed timber and the post foot. That is what happened in this church’s case. Thus we find our scope of work: to replace the rotted bed timbers and fix any post bottoms that might need it.
One of the real challenges on this project was to lift all of the posts, and everything above the tower box, to access the old bed timbers while still being able to move our new timbers into position. We threaded 2x8s into the tower box and screwed them to the studs and braces of the tower box creating a laminated beam just outside the ring of belfry tower posts. Then we used other 2×8 beneath the laminated beam as jack studs, transferring the load directly to the tower girts. We lag-screwed an L-shaped steel bracket to each post, and used hydraulic jacks on top of the laminated beam to lift the bracket and the post it was attached to. This gave us the opportunity to lift all the posts while having the entire interior of the tower box to do our work.
Only half of one bed timber looked original, sitting in same orientation as the others which looked like mid-20th century fixes. This led us to believe that flashing must have leaked at least once before. When we removed one of the newer bed timbers, we found a signature and date of 1936. This also matched up with church records.
We decided that since we were replacing so much and needed to lift the entire belfry that we had an opportunity to change the design for the better and used a common historical design in which the bed timbers are run from the middle of connecting eave walls, picking up two of the posts. This transferring of the weight onto the girts spreads the load out onto the walls and off the floor joist. To do this, we needed a fourth girt in which would run coplanar with the three other girts. So we fabricated a girt that joined to the posts with free tenons inserted in the bottom of the girts, allowing it to take horizontal tension and vertical compression.
Now that we had a coplanar box we were able to bring up our 9×12” white oak bed timbers. One of the big challenges of this project was getting the timbers up to the tower box while only having interior staircases to move through, but we were able to get them where needed them to go through a series of rigging. Fortunately all of the members were just small enough that they could fit.
We had two chain falls that helped immensely and with that we fabricated slides out of dimensional lumber that saved all around wear and tear. We all really get our jollies off during this kind of rigging and by the time it was over we felt more connected than ever with the timber framers of the past in the ever present quest to lift heavy things up high.
After the bed timbers were in place we were able to connect them to the belfry posts using free tenons that engaged the bed timbers. Although we were confident in the soundness of the timber elements we installed threaded rod between the girts and the bed timbers and between bed timbers and posts creating a tension connection that would help hold the belfry to the tower box and the rest of the building. This gives the belfry additional stability, which is helpful in cases of extreme weather.
Overall, we enjoyed the dynamic nature of the project and the rich history of Castine. We found the locals to be friendly and knowledgeable and the ocean views to be one of a kind. Although Castine doesn’t have the fame that some other early battleground areas do, it has a staggering significance in its role in the shaping of both the State of Maine and the United States.
Click on the slideshow below for more photos from the Castine project: