Restoring a Masterpiece

Restoring a Masterpiece

The Restoration of the First Church of Lancaster
The First Church’s History
The Bulfinch Fund – Preserving an American Masterpiece
Preservation in Progress
The Bulfinch Bees
What’s Next – Join the Adventure


The Restoration of the First Church of Lancaster

Lancaster’s Town Green Green) has been abuzz with activity throughout 2010.  The renovation of theTercentenaryBuildinghas been moving along with volunteers and contractors hammering, painting, and wiring. People can’t wait to see the building open and ready to welcome people.  There is a beautiful patio out back where the kindergarten students used to play. ThePrescottBuilding’s exterior, with the help of a Massachusetts Historical Commission grant, has been beautifully restored and work continues on the interior. Amidst all this, probably the most noticeable activity has been happening at the First Church as its cupola and belfry have been restored.

This landmark building has seen some very strange sights indeed – workers walking like spiders around the top of the 120 ft. dome, 14 ft. columns suspended in mid air, the disappearance of the Town clock, 600 lb. timbers lifted into the sky and of course the capture & removal of 100,000 bees!!! People have come from all over the region and as far away asRhode Islandto watch this dramatic restoration in progress. In November over 100 people gathered to see the newly refurbished weathervane put back atop the dome.  This building – the Bulfinch Church, First Church – the Fifth Meeting House of Lancaster – has been at the center of the Town’s life for almost two hundred years.  Some would say such a large and impressive building doesn’t belong in a small, unimportant town likeLancaster– but that must be because they don’t knowLancaster’s history and its importance to the region, the state and the nation in its earliest days.Lancasterhas always been a special place and this strong yet elegant building continues to connect citizen to citizen, invites inspiration and dialogue, and symbolizes the American spirit.

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The First Church’s History

The design is by the pre-eminent American architect of the early nineteenth century—Charles Bulfinch. Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844) was educated at Harvard University and traveled in Europe, where he was influenced by the classical architecture in Italy and the neoclassical buildings of Sir Christopher Wren, Robert Adam, and others in England. From the classical buildings he saw, Bulfinch evolved the distinctive Federal style, with its classical domes, columns, and precise ornament that dominated early 19th-century American architecture. In 1818 he succeeded Benjamin Henry Latrobe as architect of the U.S. Capitol, completing it in 1830.

The reason such a magnificent edifice is found inLancasteris due toFirstChurch’s pastor, Dr. Nathaniel Thayer, a graduate ofHarvardUniversity, and friend of Charles Bulfinch and many other prominent Bostonians at that time. The church is a living reminder of a period prior to separation of church and state when public funds built and supported the town church.

In 1816, prior to enactment of laws requiring separation of church and state, the church and minister were funded by the town. This building was not only the congregation’s gathering place but the Town’s as well.  Bulfinch’s design was constructed by the master builder Thomas Hersey of Harvard, Massachusetts during the memorable year of 1816—the “year of no summer” when there was frost in July, ice on the lakes, and summer temperatures were too cold to grow the crops.  From when the cornerstone was laid on July 9, 1816 until its dedication on January 1, 1817, the construction was completed in 157 days byLancasterworkmen with primarily Lancaster materials. The bricks were made inLancasterin the kiln of the father of Luther Burbank—the famed horticulturist.

The church is widely recognized, in books and publications, as having national historic significance. Harold Kirker in his book The Architecture of Charles Bulfinch describesFirstChurch as one of the last remaining Bulfinch churches and one of his finest. (pp. 94-103). Bryn Mawr’s Survey of American Architecture listsFirstChurch as one of the sixteen key national monuments for the period 1785 to 1830. G.E. Kidder Smith in The Beacon Guide to New England Houses of Worship observes, “Presiding with patrician aplomb over the lovely Town Common, theFederalStyleFirstChurch also delights with some of the most elegant proportions in religious architecture” (p 82). Architect and author Robert Mutrux in Great New England Churches notes the architecture of First Church “is nothing short of perfection,” and he quotes William Pierson in calling First Church “an American Masterpiece” (p 60). With so many of Bulfinch’s other building having been compromised by alterations or demolition, First Church of Church, the Fifth Meetinghouse remains one of the most architecturally significant and intact examples of Bulfinch’s work.

Bulfinch’s First Church of Christ is one of the few remaining meetinghouses of the many that he designed, and is celebrated as one of the finest and most untouched of Bulfinch’s religious structures.   Many churches have been substantially altered in comparison toFirstChurch which remains essentially unchanged from the day of its dedication. In fact, only recently has any form of artificial lighting been introduced and central heating only served the 1881 rear wing. Indeed, through the nearly two hundred years since its construction,FirstChurch has stood the test of time. The beauty and rigorous logic of its architectural design have withstood changing tastes with the original plan of the Sanctuary, its pews and fittings – even the early engrain carpeting – have survived. The locally-made brick and Lancaster-quarried slate have aged with grace. Even the heating of the sanctuary by way of two wood stoves which was introduced only a decade after the building was constructed continues to be used.

In 2002 the Church added a separate building known as the Community Hall providing a spacious gathering place for the church and community. Until recently there was no recorded deed of ownership. Two acres of land were given to the church to build the Fifth Meeting House, but no record of the transfer survives.  To clarify who owned what so that the Church could proceed with building the community hall, a written agreement of property boundaries was signed by the town selectmen and the church Standing Committee members in 2002. The building has been continuously used by the church for congregational purposes and is still actively used as a Unitarian church.

The First Church of Christ and its Unitarian congregation are deeply rooted in the history of the Town of Lancaster serving as an anchor on the town green. The descendants of some of the original congregation still sit in the pews purchased by their ancestors in order to fund the construction of the building in 1816.  It is bordered by Neoclassical-style civic buildings, forming an ensemble of great quality and presence.  In 1970 the significance of the Church was formally declared when the church was designated a National Historic Landmark, the highest form of historic recognition in theUnited States. The Church was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places at that time and is also a Massachusetts Historic Site.

In 2006 the First Church received a Preservation Planning Grant from the Getty Foundation.  The Church engaged Menders, Torrey and Spencer, Inc., an architectural and planning firm specializing in the design and preservation of civic buildings, historic properties, religious structures and residences. MTS conducted a thorough conditions assessment survey of the building. The survey highlighted all the areas in the building that were in need of restoration/preservation and made recommendations. The survey and additional analysis formed the basis of the Historic Structures Report.  This report is the roadmap that theFirstChurch and The Bulfinch Fund are using to set goals for this very important preservation project – the restoration ofLancaster’s very own National Historic Landmark!

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The Bulfinch Fund – Preserving an American Masterpiece

In 2008, The Bulfinch Fund was founded by a group of local people who felt this building needed a more concentrated effort to preserving it than the small First Church congregation could muster. The Bulfinch Fund’s objectives are to develop resources for the preservation and restoration of this building and to foster recognition of the significance of the 19th century American architect, Charles Bulfinch, through tours and other educational programs, events and publications.

In 2010 The Bulfinch Fund offered five Preservation Matters programs, gave Bulfinch Explorer tours to more than 200 Lancaster elementary students, and hosted a town-wide Preservation Open House to celebrate the restoration of the cupola.  Plans are underway for a day-long trip exploring how Charles Bulfinch shaped the architecture and character of Federal Boston and several more Preservation Matters programs.

A total of over $320,000 has been raised for the restoration of the cupola.  The Fund intends to raise an additional $200,000 dollars so that to continue the work begun last spring and complete the restoration of the lower front façade of the building – the portico.

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Preservation in Progress

In the fall of 2009, The First Church received a matching grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission to begin the work on the belfry.  The Bulfinch Fund supplied the matching money donated by foundations, church members, and the general public.  The work was put out to bid and Murray Brothers Construction’s bid was accepted. Murray Brothers is a local firm that has had much experience with historic preservation including the Orchard House inConcord and theRussianIconMuseum inClinton.  Due to a delay in the release of State funds the work was delayed until the spring of 2010.  Once Murray Brothers began work on this magnificent building it was apparent their work became a labor of love.  A common experience with The Bulfinch Church; it grabs your heart and doesn’t let go.

The first phase of the project focused on the belfry which hosts a bell that came from the historic foundry of Paul Revere & Son.   The original Revere bell was recast and installed in 1822 by the Reveres and continues to be rung announcing services and celebrations.

The Revere bell sits in a wooden “cradle” that had to be completely rebuilt. The first adventure that the project encountered was that the central timber that was needed to lift the bell out of the old cradle before work could begin was discovered completely rotted. It had been hollowed out by years of water seeping from the weathervane above.    So this large timber, weighing 600 lbs. had to be replaced before any work could commence.  Murray Brothers built the new cradle using mortise and tenon joinery.  The original plan was to paint the new cradle but the joinery was so beautiful it was decided to just treat the wood with linseed oil allowing everyone to see and learn from this fine preservation craftsmanship.

Another major piece of work was to replace the one of the fluted columns that surrounds the belfry, it had rotted through. Murray Brothers had to find one timber large enough and a craftsman to flute the exterior to exactly replicate the original column.  And it also had to be just the right wood, an oak that would last another 200 years.  What a sight to watch this 14 ft. long timber be hoisted in the air and set in place.  One small slip and…..!

The wheel that swings the bell was rebuilt and strengthened.  All belfry roofs, flooring, and trim were repaired or replaced and painted. The very long rope pull used to ring the bell when the congregation is called to services each Sunday was replaced.  And finally, the flag pole was repaired and painted.

The next phase of the project was to restore the cupola or dome of the church.  Once the roof of the dome was removed the inner timbers were found to be severely aged and weakened. This required immediate attention before any other work could take place…  Murray Brothers made a pattern by “tracing” the exact curve of the existing timbers and then cut the new timbers to match.  New timbers were “sistered” to each side of the existing timber maintaining the old timbers while creating a new, twice as strong, structure to last for another century.

The weathervane was removed to be repaired and re-gilded. The wooden finial that held the weathervane was rebuilt and strengthened. Next step was to reroof the dome. This was done in several layers: wood – weather proofing – and finally lead coated copper.  The decision was made to let the lead coated copper roof weather to a milky white rather than paint the dome. Painting would have required using toxic materials to etch the copper so the paint would adhere.  And, once painted, would have meant repainting every few years that would be expensive and not eco-friendly.  Each seam,  joint, layer of the roof has been sealed and resealed so that the vagaries of our New England weather will no longer seep into the dome.  Staging that had to be built to provide access to the dome’s structure was left inside, complements of the Murray Brothers, so that when access is necessary it can be done safely and securely.   The weathervane, carefully repaired and newly gilded, was set back into its rightful place atop the cupola at a special Topping off Ceremony in November.

The brick tower’s clock was next. Clock faces were removed, repaired, and smaltz’ed. No – this isn’t a Scandinavian sweet treat but is black “goop” that was spread on the surface to give more weather protection and luster to the surface.  Clock hands were removed prior to smaltzing and new hands were built, gilded and installed.  The tower’s side “fans, just below the clocks, were also repaired and repainted along with the roof.  Unfortunately an early winter got in the way of completing the project.  The remaining masonry repairs will be finished in the spring.

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The Bulfinch Bees

The most memorable adventure was of course the BEES!! Before work began on the clock level, bees that had been nesting in the east corner of the building needed to be relocated. As many people know bees are having a hard time of it these days with a mysterious blight or virus that is killing off the hives.  Farmers now have to buy or rent (!) hives of bees to pollinate their crops.  The congregation of theFirstChurchdecided it wasn’t right to kill the bees with pesticide and bee keeper, Shawn Bernard, was called in to remove the hive.  Shawn estimated that nests to be about 2,000 bees and that removal would take a couple of hours. Matt Buckley of Murray Brothers offered to assist by driving the lift and providing the necessary carpentry.  Well 10 hours and 100,000 bees later Shawn and Matt had captured the queen. With the help of David Dunn and Al Stoddart, local beekeepers, and the church’s steward, John Spencer, new hives were loaded and ready to be driven to Shawn’s organic bee farm in Leominster.  The honeycomb was shared amongst all that helped. The adventure continued as Nina Kilbourn, Sandra Ruth, Sue Billings, and Martha Moore learned how to process the honey by using natural sunlight and all kinds of comb-squeezing tools that they invented from standard kitchen utensils.  Sixty jars of honey were extracted and sold out in a few weeks – simply by word of mouth!  The monies were used to cover some of the costs of this unusual effort.

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What’s Next – Join the Adventure

All of these restoration decision moments – the rotted belfry timber, the damaged dome, and the bees forced the project to go $52, 000 dollars beyond budget.  This spring The Fund and The First Church would like to complete the lower front façade of the church by restoring the portico – the doors, the masonry, roofing and painting.  The estimates for these efforts will cost (without further adventures) approximately $200,000. The Bulfinch Fund must raise this money now so when the snow melts (by July maybe???) work can begin on the portico.

If you would like to help restore and preserve this local treasure and National Historic Landmark please donate to The Bulfinch Fund PO Box 194 Lancaster MA 01523 or online by clicking the “Donate” button.  If you would like to help us in some other way please let us know by emailing info@TheBulfinchFund.org or calling 978-365-5570.





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