A Boston church undergoes a makeover to revive its past

Careful phasing allowed for a cost-effective church restoration project.

Carl Jay

Many church executives and parishioners know that rehabilitating or renovating a church structure in today’s economy is a daunting task. But often, with most of today’s church structures reaching or exceeding the century mark, repairs are necessities, not only to preserve the building but also to ensure the safety of the congregation.

The costs associated with a church’s preservation can be huge, especially if there is not a large  endowment to pull from. In addition, church construction traditionally lends itself to be a major disruption to parish activities. With busy liturgical schedules and a multitude of community meetings and services, churches cannot afford to close their doors for months at a time. But, as the historic Church of the Advent, Boston, MA, recently found, you don’t have to drain your bank account or shut down the building to make smart, phased repairs.

Located in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood since the 1880s, the Sturgis and Brigham-designed Church of the Advent has been a valuable and revered neighborhood landmark for generations of families. After more than a century of constant use church administrators realized that the building was in need of several repairs and the safety of its parishioners were at risk.

Falling masonry signaled need

The masonry and stone were dirty, worn and damaged from decades of New England weather, several stained glass windows were in need of critical care and conservation and the slate roof was beginning to show signs of failure. In 2003, a chunk of masonry fell from the church’s bell tower and landed in the garden below. Although, fortunately no one was around at the time, the stone had narrowly missed the area where the pastor normally greets parishioners after mass. The church leadership knew it was time to act.

A team of church clergy, lay staff and parish leaders made a decision to renovate the structure. They turned to Shawmut Design and Construction and a team of expert masons, glass artisans, historians, church staff and parishioners to ensure historic and artistic integrity during construction and to keep the church open throughout the project.

Early in the planning process, church officials met with the builder to sequence construction around church services and events. In addition, the church wanted to make smart repairs based on their budget and fundraising goals. The solution was to break up the project into a multi-year restoration, divided into four phases, so that restoration work could be scheduled around church activities and the church budget, while providing for the safety of staff, parishioners and neighbors.

Good construction management companies should advise their clients on how to phase a project most cost effectively and with minimal disruption to major church events and services. In most cases, the first phase of construction will deal with life safety issues and upgrades. For example, if chunks of stone were falling off the building onto sidewalks or church patios, these repairs would be the first on the list to ensure the safety of the church’s users.

Structure and integrity first

The following phases should deal with significant impacts to the structure and integrity of the building (e.g., a failing roof system or leaking window), and subsequent projects located near the construction impact sites. It costs around $40,000 to erect and dismantle scaffolding to repair a roof. The project is better off completing work in and around the scaffolding below the roof line at the same time to save that cost during future phasing.

In 2006, the first phase of restoration began at the church. In this phase, the 172-foot bell tower was restored and large stone crosses atop the roof were secured to their bases and fit with seismic reinforcements to prevent them from falling off. Damaged stones and bricks in the bell tower were removed and needed to be replaced. After careful research of the original building permits and plans for the church, the construction management firm was able to locate and import precisely matched sandstone from the original quarry in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Much of the repair work on the Gothic-style church was needed because of weather. Two stone crosses had sat on roof peaks above the church’s two entrances before being blown off in hurricanes prior to the 1950s. The builder worked with church parishioners and the neighborhood to create replacement crosses that would be historically accurate. A parishioner designed two new crosses and submitted drawings to the neighborhood architectural commission to ensure compliance with architectural guidelines of this historic district. The crosses were then made from durable lead-coated copper that closely resembled the original stone and installed above the two entrances.

Restore the originals

The build team also worked with several master coppersmith craftsmen on 16 copper roof finials. Several of the decorative adornments had fallen off over the years; others were simply damaged and needed repair. The team researched the original finials and was able to restore those that had been worn with weather and age, and replace the others that had blown off the church during earlier storms.

Another project that was included in this first phase was the restoration of two very rare 8-foot by 20-foot stained glass windows, originally crafted in London in 1910 by Arts and Crafts Movement artist Christopher Whall. The windows were completely documented, dismantled and shipped to one of the top stained glass restorers in the United States for repair.

This delicate process impacted the entire congregation during the restoration because of scaffolding that needed to be erected both inside and outside the church. To ensure minimal impact to parishioners and to close-by neighbors, the exterior scaffolding was erected in a church garden away from the busy street. The garden was later redesigned to be an area of reflection in line with the church’s new design.

The second and third phases of the project began in 2007. This work included the repair and restoration of the Munson slate roof, the repair of several additional stained glass windows and the restoration and cleaning of the remaining masonry. Much of the slate was either missing or damaged. Several stones needed to be replaced to ensure that the roof system would not fail and cause damage to the interior fixtures and woodwork.

Since Munson slate was popular during this time in Boston, and the quarry has been shut down for many decades, the project team relied on a stockpile of slate salvaged from other construction projects in the area — this is often a sustainable and cost-effective solution to using newly quarried slate. During this phase, the remaining stained glass windows were taken out for restoration and repaired by a master stained glass restorer off site.

The Church of the Advent is now in the middle of fundraising for the next phase of the restoration project. Phase four will involve an extensive cleaning of the church’s interior, and will require several months of construction. This project will most likely start during church downtime, recognizing that the Holy Christmas and Easter seasons will be very busy for the church, and construction would not be recommended during this time.

Preserve the sanctity of services

Stone, woodwork, copper and glass will all be cleaned of incense soot and other dust accumulated over the years. In order to make less of an impact on the parishioners, the work will be scheduled during off hours when the facility is not in use, preserving the sanctity of services and the serenity of community group meetings.

By completing the renovation in phases and scheduling work during church downtimes, the Church of the Advent was able to remain open throughout all phases, and worship services and community activities were able to proceed uninterrupted. This was very helpful to the church as it needed to not only fulfill its obligations to the community by remaining open, but was able to still collect revenue from community groups who rent their space.

Careful phasing made this project a real success and the church was saved from what could have been a heavy financial burden. Further impacting those around them, the church’s connectedness and devotion inspired members of the construction team to become members of the church parish themselves.

Carl Jay is director of historic preservation for Shawmut Design and Construction, Boston, MA. [shawmut.com]

Photos courtesy of Shawmut Design and Construction.


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