BRISTOL— It’s been almost two years since the First Congregational Church began a renovation project that involved a tricky excavation to turn the building’s crawl space foundation into a full basement. With that complete, the project has moved outdoors in what Mark Johnson, the project co-chairman, calls “the things you can see and hear phase.”
“Phase one was essentially out of sight, out of mind,” Mr. Johnson said of the 18 months of painstaking structural restoration work. “Now we’re on to buildings and grounds.”
While workers climbed scaffolding inside the Dewolf building and removed centuries old windows that were installed when the building was built, landscapers and mason workers were tasked with completing the grounds and landscape surrounding the gothic church.
Built in 1855, the church was constructed out of stone at the corner of High Street and Bradford Street in hope that it wouldn’t succumb to fire as did the two structures that served the congregation and the community before it. But once the recent renovation work began, the contractors learned that water – not fire – was quietly wreaking havoc inside and out.
“The downspouts were emptying into the basement,” said Rob Cagnetta, president of Heritage Restoration, Inc., the company contracted for the project.
Although Mr. Cagnetta had no idea why the original builders would have designed the drainage system to flood into the building’s foundation, it was agreed that another method was needed. To do so, the lawn had to be torn up to install a drainage system.
While correcting that engineering flaw, a heavy rainstorm provided the opportunity for the builders to discover that water was leaking through the masonry of the foundation’s stone wall, a condition that had otherwise gone undetected.
“Drainage is a big problem in Bristol,” Mr. Cagnetta acknowledged.
That was corrected by installing a drywell to catch and dissipate any water that seeps beneath the church.
The main purpose of the basement excavation was to shore up the brick pillars that support the upstairs balcony where members of the congregation sit, and to add foundational support to the four columns that brace the arched ceiling.
“It’s like ‘Give a Mouse a Cookie’,” Mr. Johnson said of renovations to the 158 year old building.
In the children’s book, “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” written by Laura Numeroff, a mouse gets a cookie then wants a glass of milk. To drink it, the mouse wants a straw, then asks for a mirror to check for crumbs, and so on.
“Once we got into one job, we’d say ‘Since we’re doing this, we might well do this, too’,” Mr. Johnson said of the project’s evolution.
“We knew we were dealing with a building worthy of saving,” Mr. Cagnetta said.
Embracing church and state
The First Congregational Church is significant to Bristol and beyond as being the origin of annual Fourth of July celebration. It is recorded that on July 4, 1785, Reverend Henry Wight gave the first patriotic address to commemorate the nation’s independence from England. That tradition has continued, although moved from the church to its current location outside Colt School, earning Bristol the privilege to designate itself as being home to the oldest Fourth of July celebration in America.
The First Congregational Church is also steward of a natural spectacular, Mr. Cagnetta said. On its property is a sequoia tree believed to be “the second tallest sequoia east of the Mississippi River,” he said, second only to the giant sequoia at Blithewold in Bristol.
Over 30 craftsmen who specialize in historic restoration conferred on the project during the planning stages. Since then, local residents with various areas of expertise also volunteered their services to help the cause.
Understanding the church’s history and significance to the community, Mr. Johnson eagerly took on the responsibility of fundraising and overseeing the project through each phase.
“These people are passionate for their work. They take pride in what they are doing. I hope this becomes a showcase for the town,” he said.
Work you don’t see includes new copper flooring on the bell tower where a century and a half of weather had taken its toll. Inside the tower, the 1854 Meneelys bell is secure in place and the mechanism to strike the bell using a rope and pulley moves with ease.
Slate shingles on the church roof have been repaired and replaced where, up until the project began, no one realized that some had become loose and slid down the roof’s pitch only to damage others in their path.
And in the newly dugout basement, since a new heating system was installed last year, the church has already realized nearly $10,000 in fuel savings to heat the cavernous building.
Since the restoration work relies on fundraising efforts, Mr. Johnson hopes that phase two will motivate additional support.
“Finally we can see and hear what we’re doing around here,” Mr. Johnson said.
A community effort
The “things we see and hear phase” resulted in the purchase of a new Roland keyboard that now graces the floor of the church. Othneil Clarke, minister of music, will use the new instrument to interact with the congregation as he plays, a duty that was otherwise impossible when playing the pipe organ located in the choir loft.
The most recent efforts are visible from the street, with freshly poured concrete walkways and a lawn ready for sod to complete a grass carpet.
With the lawn dug up from the drainage work, it seemed practical to address the landscaping issues, Mr. Johnson said. Gary Watros, a neighbor who lives across the street from the church, was glad to see the renovation work and offered his assistance to help beautify the neighborhood.
“You could say it’s been neglected for the past couple of years,” Mr. Watros said of the church grounds.
Mr. Watros, an engineer with an “avocation for landscape design,” was quick to help when approached by Mr. Johnson.
He designed the area, which is visible from his property across the street, so that the large cross on the outside of the children’s bible school was the focal point. A bench will be placed along the wrought iron fence and the fence extended around the corner for aesthetic consistency.
Offering his design expertise and labor to clear that area, Mr. Watros said he was glad to help.
“It’s a gift to the street,” he said.
Likewise, Mr. Johnson said, Bristol resident Keith Reynolds applied his interior design knowledge to color coordinate the interior scheme.
As the fundraising efforts continue, Mr. Johnson is looking forward to the end of summer when the full congregation will return to the church for services. He is looking forward to seeing their reactions when they see the renovations that are complete and those still under way.
“We needed a long range plan,” Mr. Johnson said. “The age old debate – what to do with the old building. Luckily we have people with passion. It’s really heartwarming.”
The fundraising efforts have a 3 to 6 year timeline in which to raise $1.5 million.
“It seemed like the right time,” he said of the work. “We just need the money.”