Preservation in the field can take many forms. Most of the time, preservation is the most practical and reliable answer to a client’s needs, but there are times when pure preservation isn’t feasible, or reasonable (see Demeritt-O’Kane). The New Castle Congregational Church and gazebo offers an alternate model. The congregation has endeavored to preserve the main body of the church, repairing the undercarriage framing, and rebuilding the foundation under the rear additions of the building. When it came time to repair the dome topping the steeple, however, the building committee was faced with a proposal: if they allowed a cell tower to be built on top of the tower box, the cell company would pay for a new dome, in addition to monthly rent during the long-term lease. When the congregation chose to lease the space to the cell company, the dome was replaced with a hollow, fiberglass replicate.
Additionally, the cell company contributed to funds raised by community members for the complete restoration of the original dome. Some of the money from the cell tower helped to pay for a custom gazebo to support the restored dome. Its historical integrity was compromised, but at least the dome would be put to use.
The design process was a challenge. The building committee wanted a gazebo space that was large enough for weddings and other functions, but the original footprint of the belfry wasn’t big enough. From a design perspective, the gazebo needed to echo the original tower trim, but not overpower it. Due to distance and perspective, steeple cornice trim can be comically large when viewed up close; it is one of the most persistent surprises since I’ve started doing this work. Given these restrictions, Ed and Keith designed a gazebo that honored the original craftsmanship of the dome, without distracting from the classic composition of the church.
The preservation of the dome was completed first. The huge, curved rafters reproduced using a Prazi beam cutter, which is a chainsaw bar and chain attached to a circular saw in place of the saw blade. The Prazi functions like a jigsaw on steroids. Other elements of the original framing were retained, like the struts that run diagonally from plate to mast.The gazebo’s timber frame design was ingenious. The eight-sided structure consisted of four main bents and four diagonal plates, which overlapped and connected the main bents.
The main bents were assembled in the shop, their joints were pinned, and then stacked neatly. They were loaded onto the trailer and driven to New Castle, where we were met by a crane. The crane unloaded each bent from the trailer and stood the frame onto its feet already located on an octagonal concrete pad.
As the bents were unloaded, they were braced temporarily, and capped with their respective plates, creating the alternate four faces. Working against the crane operator’s clock, we carefully laid sleepers across the plates and tapped them into their final resting places. Once the sleepers were placed, the crane lifted the cherry-colored dome and placed it on top.
The weather in the weeks that followed started with a heat wave and finished with a week-long downpour. When the weather threatened to derail and July 4th deadline, we opted to drape the entire structure in an improvised tarp tent.
Under the tent, we were able to complete the cedar shingling of the skirt roof, hanging the cornice, casing the posts and braces and hanging beadboard on the ceiling. Our friend Iain Mackenzie turned and installed a custom balustrade. By July fourth, the tarp was removed, and New Castle was able to dedicate the gazebo on Independence Day.
New Castle’s approach may not fit the preservation ideal, but it was a compromise that ultimately led to a new community space and the adaptive re-use of a significant architectural artifact. See more photos in our Flickr set.