PORTLAND — The First Parish Church’s steeple is about to undergo the first major renovation since it was built — not bad, considering it’s 186 years old.
The job includes removing the uppermost part of the steeple, the belfry, and hauling it to Vermont for repairs.
Stephen Jenks, president of the Unitarian Universalist church’s trustees, said the steeple has deteriorated to the point where the renovation is necessary. He said the balustrade, a railing just below the belfry, had rotted and was removed late last year, and other parts of the structure are showing signs of wear and tear that need to be addressed.
Jenks said the last significant repairs were in 1977. The company hired for the job this time said the 1977 work was structurally sound, but not historically accurate.
This renovation, Jenks said, is designed to be accurate right down to the type of wood that’s used.
The church was built in 1825-26, replacing the congregation’s first meeting house, known as Old Jerusalem. That meeting house was hit by a cannonball in 1775. The British Navy fired the shots, which set fire to the town, because they suspected residents of supporting the rebellion.
The cannonball now hangs from a chandelier in the church.
Jenks said the church and steeple have plenty of history that will make the repair work delicate. For instance, it’s believed to have the last functioning Simon Willard tower clock in the country. Willard was early America’s most celebrated clockmaker, and his timepieces can be found in the White House and U.S. Capitol.
Some Willard aficionados have stopped by and asked to go up into the steeple to see the three-sided clock, Jenks said.
Southgate Steeplejacks, the Vermont company hired to do the renovation work, will begin this winter by building some of the interior pieces at the company’s workshop in Barre, Vt. In late summer, Jenks said, the belfry will be removed and taken to Barre for the interior and exterior work. It will go back on the steeple 60 to 90 days later — in time for Thanksgiving, he said.
The work will cost about $220,000. The church structure itself is owned by a 105-year-old trust, Jenks said, but the trust exhausted most of its funds a couple of years ago when the heating system needed to be replaced.
Jenks said the trust plans to raise money from the congregation, grants, community fundraising and the sale of artwork, including six pieces by noted landscape artist Charles Codman in April. Some of the art is currently on loan to the Portland Museum of Art, Jenks said.
The community fundraising effort reflects First Parish’s deep ties to Portland, he said. A number of community events are held at the church, including concerts, and the trust hopes that means the community will help with the renovation costs.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the historical importance of the church to Portland, said Hilary Bassett, executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks.
“It’s one of the most important buildings in Portland,” Bassett said, ranking with the Portland Observatory, Portland City Hall and a number of other structures on Congress Street. “It kind of defines our place.”
Bassett said it’s often particularly hard for a congregation housed in a historic structure to adhere to strict standards in renovations, and she said First Parish is doing a good job with the plans for the steeple.
“It’s tough to do the business of being a church and maintaining a historic building,” she said. “I’m thrilled that the congregation has decided to move ahead with the work.”
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: