Troy Union Church was built in 1840, in a vernacular style that combines elements of Greek and Gothic Revival. It is a modest building, 34′ x 42′, built to host the small town’s various Christian denominations, hence the “Union”. Caught up in that communal spirit, the bell tower is preparing to take a trust fall onto the back of the church. I’ve photographed a lot of buildings, and capturing a slumping wall, or humped roof can be challenging. This steeple has a model’s slouch. In fact, the center of the tie beam supporting the rear tower sags 7″ below eave height. The 10 x 10 tie beam is 34′ long, which means that there is a 7″ deflection over 17′.
Typically, we also have trouble photographing center rot in a beam. The timber will be hollow, but look perfectly sound on its face, the only visible evidence seen through the pin’s hole in a mortise. At Troy, there is a crevass in the top of this tie beam, a 3″ x 12″ valley of rot. PTF stabilized the steeple in 2011; building a cross braced KD wall to support the failing truss. The fact that the timber was able to deteriorate that far, without dropping the entire tower, is a marvel.
The design of most New England steeples is idiosyncratic. Vernacular church design is informed by regional tradition, availability of materials, individual ingenuity and a shared copy of an Asher Benjamin book. Entering a church attic can feel like entering the builder’s brain. Especially so at Troy Union Church. The main timbers are hand hewn, and the design is uncomplicated, braced wherever possible. The king post truss is without flourish, straight-sided, no flare at the head, or shoulder at the struts. The rear tower wall is a common adaptation of the queen post truss, where the tower posts take the place of the queens. Occasionally, such an adaptation can be successful, like the queen post truss in the United Church of Craftsbury Common, VT. Unfortunately, at Troy, the revised truss misses the mark. The large braces running from tie to tower post aren’t large enough to serve as upper chords, and the girt isn’t located properly to function as a strainer. That said, its hard to fault a design that supported the bell tower for more than 170 years.
The restoration effort is led by Norma Rossel, one of 12 remaining members of the congregation. Soft-spoken, Rossel challenges one’s expectations of leadership. She is as determined as she is doe-eyed. In the Kennebec Journal, Rossel explained, “”The ladies of the church got together and said, ‘It’s up to us.'” With a population of 1000, Troy faces a challenge shared by many of Maine’s rural communities: they are in possession of a historically significant building but lack the resources to repair it. The Maine Steeples Project, of the Maine Communities Foundation, was established to address just this need. In 2011, the church was elected to the National Register of Historic Places, and received from the Steeples Project a $2,500 grant for assessment and stabilization. The church received an additional $15,000 grant from the Belvedere fund, in total raising nearly $40,000 to re-build the trusses.
Still, it wasn’t feasible for the church to hire PTF outright. The congregation is tiny, the budget is tight, and the travel costs would be prohibitory. It will take double the funding they’ve raised already to place the trusses and complete the restoration. Fortunately, what the community lacks in local funding, it makes up for in skilled neighbor. Through connections made at a longstanding monthly potluck, Rossel found Marvin Daugherty, a caregiver and swordmaker, and Scott Pfeiffer, a farmer at the Garcelon House, a cottage industry incubator. Pfeiffer recruited Adam Joy, who raises goats at his farm and has some timber-framing experience with an uncle at Red Suspender Timber Frames, to join the restoration effort. Troy used to be called Joy, ME, and Adam descends from its founders.
Pfeiffer is a busy man, he and his partner sell eggs, produce wool, and maintain an organization that runs like a communal homestead. He says he is a farmer in every sense of the word, in that he farms himself out to the work that needs doing. He cannot afford to volunteer through the winter months, and neither can his fellow crewmembers. Following the model used to restore the Acworth Meetinghouse, Preservation Timber Framing will provide documentation, a repair plan, training and on-going guidance to the crew. The crew receives training and is paid a fair hourly rate that saves the church money, while spending fundraising dollars locally.
In March, we visited the church to document existing conditions and develop construction drawings. Daugherty and Pfeiffer had already removed the sanctuary ceiling, allowing light into the attic space and making documentation much easier. We try to preserve the original design of a frame wherever possible, but the modified queen post truss at Bent 2 was under-engineered for its task: supporting half of the bell tower over an open span of 32′ (there is a 1′ overhang past either plate). We recommended rebuilding Bent 2 as originally arranged, with slightly larger timbers, and inserting a king post truss directly behind it. The new truss would be a replica of the king post trusses in Bents 3 and 4. Two bed timbers will run directly beneath the tower posts, and span from the front gable to the new truss, spreading the tower load over three tie beams (Bents 1, 2 and 3). We drew up detailed construction drawings of the repair plan, and assembled the crew in Troy.
Timber Framing isn’t particularly complicated, but it is a rare skill, unlikely to be encountered on contemporary job sites. Working with large, un-dried timbers requires a completely different conception of layout, relying on reference faces to account for variation and shrinkage. It also requires a furniture-maker’s attention to detail, a basic understanding of the forces that put beams into tension or compression, and willingness to use hand tools. Scott Lewis and Lee Hoagland met the crew at the Garcelon House, in Troy, which Pfeiffer graciously offered as a cutting yard. The crew was accompanied by sheep, goats, pigs and geese in an adjacent barn, along with their spring lambs, kids and piglets. They spent a day organizing the yard, spreading out and labeling posts, rafters, struts, braces and tie beams. They showed the crew how to establish and use reference faces and arrises, how to lay out a line and carry it around the timber, and how to lay out joinery from cut drawings. Scott and Lee laid out mortises and tenons while the crew cut. They wielded 16″ circular saws and chainsaw mortisers fearlessly. It took the crew about two weeks to complete the cutting. As soon as the weather cooperated, Scott, Lee and I returned to Troy to fit the pieces together.
We were met there by two local TV crews and the Kennebec Journal. Rossel will use the completed frame to raise the money needed for a crane to put it in place. WABI Channel 5’s coverage focused on the repair process and the timber framing itself, while ABC 7/Fox 22’s coverage shows more of the church. The Kennebec Journal wrote a great article detailing the history of the building, and Rossel’s efforts with the community to raise the restoration money.
Marvin Daugherty speaks in the sort of aphorisms you’d expect from a practitioner of Kung Fu and maker of samurai swords. When asked how his skills working with metal transfer to working in wood, he responded, “skill is skill and either you have the touch or you don’t” and that “it’s just being sensitive to things.” He says, “If you can be good at one thing, you can be good at a lot of things.” Talking to Daugherty, I learned that a person can have Kung Fu in any craft that requires training over time, and that the singular association with martial arts is an American invention. I must not have a good appreciation of Kung Fu, because what impressed me, visiting the jobsite in Troy, was how quickly Daugherty and the rest of the crew had picked up timber framing. After training with Scott and Lee a handful of times, Pfeiffer, Joy and Daugherty had re-constructed the entire rear wall of the bell tower and a beautiful king post truss. If you are interested in the efforts to complete the restoration, please visit the Troy Union website.
More photos, below: