Project Milestones

This section chronicles developments in Newport's South Church preservation project.

Done at last.

By 2005 the roof leaked badly, leaving telltale stains on the ceilings and walls. Replacing the roof became a priority, but funding it seemed an impossibility. So much has happened during the intervening years.

Last week, we paid the final masonry bills and submitted our Baseline Documentation, Stewardship Agreement and Final Budget Worksheet to LCHIP — driving the papers down to Concord shortly before our month-end deadline and just as we had done three years ago when we first applied for a grant.

In the end, our project cost $175,000, with just over half of it used to replace the roof over the entire expanded building. The 1822/23 meetinghouse portion, on which most of the remaining money was spent, has not looked so well kept in recent memory. Some work has yet to be done on the 1871 and 1986 additions, but at least our most significant historic asset has received the preservation treatment it so badly needed.

Our local contractors were dedicated to the project: Mike Mayo at Weathercheck in Sunapee, Jason Foster at Foster's Painting in Claremont, Sam Roberts at Chim-Tech masonry in Lebanon. Their advice, workmanship and site management made the whole effort run smoothly with no disruption to the church's schedule. We must also thank consulting contractor George Neuwirt of Sunapee, whose estimates enabled us to scope out the project and complete our grant application. Now approaching 200 years old, this building is an architectural gem, and it has been a privilege to work on its continued preservation.

In the final phase.

The old meetinghouse is a busy place these days, with both masons and painters using their aerial lifts to reach up to the eaves. Our schedule has been pushed back into July because of poor weather in May and early June, but LCHIP has extended our completion deadline to September 30, 2012, so we should be in fine shape to meet our grant obligations.

Despite the unintended overlap between the masonry and painting, the projects are coming together nicely — producing a building that hasn't appeared in such good overall condition in years. Community members have commented favorably on each stage of the project, but now they are getting a much closer look as the work descends from the steeple and roof, reaching ground level (and even slightly below).

Thank you to all the donors who have contributed, some more than once. With just a few people managing this entire multi-year project, your timely response to our periodic appeals has been most welcome.

Another financial update.

We presented financial statements for the Meetinghouse Preservation Fund to the annual meeting of the South Congregational Church a couple of weeks ago. Now we've drafted an update to mail to current and prospective donors. We still need to raise about $1,500 to reach our initial goal, but of course we hope to exceed that amount in order to meet some of the overruns that arose at various points in the project. At the outset, we withdrew $25,000 from the South Church Capital Reserve to cover such contingencies, but we would like to return at least a portion as a down payment on the building's future needs—its next roof, steeple painting, or furnace.

▶ Download the financial report and updated appeal.

Shutters are painted.

The meetinghouse has 62 wooden shutters. All but two have been removed and refinished over the past months. We especially thank Foster's Professional Painting of Claremont (winner of a 2011 Business Excellence Award presented by the New Hampshire Business Review) for donating labor and materials for 24 of those blinds. They will return in the spring to finish the two closed shutters over the center entrance doors that could not be removed from the building.

Taking stock.

The steeple work is done. On November 5, the repaired urns were restored to their places on the steeple, completing phase two of the project. Over the coming winter, we hope to see the shutters removed and painted. Then the project wraps up with some masonry work. Once any outstanding bills are received, we'll solicit new bids and discover just what that final phase will include. Because we will not make the two-year project deadline, we have applied to LCHIP for a six-month extension, which is not an uncommon thing for historic preservation projects. Fortunately, in this case we are taking the extra time in order to plan the final phase and secure the best available local contractors; we are not responding to some unforeseen difficulty. Let's hope it stays that way!

Phase two is winding down.

We are pleased to report that the steeple painting is nearly completed. Our painters still need to install some decorative elements, replacing those that have rotted out over the last decade, but otherwise they are finishing up by spreading loam and grass seed to cover the tracks of the man-lift. Fortunately, the steeple was mostly in good shape and should remain that way, protected by three new coats of paint. We have been very pleased with the professional manner and high quality of the work done by Jason Foster's crew. Great job. The highly-visible site was always presentable—especially on weekends when the meetinghouse saw regular use.

Next, we need to check our bank balance and confer with more contractors about the final phase of the project. It will be something of a catch-all, dominated by masonry, trim repair, and still more painting. Stay tuned for the details.

An appeal for more money.

We've just finished drafting our second (and we hope final) broad-based appeal to the congregation for financial support. With only $5,000 to raise and another $5,000 challenge grant on the line, we are optimistic. Of course, we would really like to exceed our goal because we already know that our expenses will exceed our initial budget, so we'll have to scale back the final phase accordingly. We would also like to return some money to the Capital Reserve Fund for future work. As with our initial appeal back in September, every dollar raised goes into the building's preservation—we have hired no consultants and all of our fundraising-related supplies have been donated. Even within the South Church, there are worthy projects competing for donations, but we hope you'll see this one as a unique opportunity to pass our historic meetinghouse along to the next generation. Thanks again.

▶ Download the financial report and appeal.

Painting is underway.

The painters arrived this week to begin work on the front facade and steeple. After such a long winter hiatus, it's nice to see the old meetinghouse receiving some attention. Even the primer coat on the pediment is a marked improvement!

We are also preparing another financial appeal to the congregation, to be accompanied by an updated financial report. The numbers show that we need to raise another $5,000 in order to meet our original fundraising goal. This will undoubtedly not be enough, as the painters have already found "soft spots" that will require extra attention—and probably extra money. 

We knew that the steeple, last painted twelve years ago, represented a significant wildcard for the project because it is so inaccessible. For this reason, the work was scheduled as phase two of the project. The list of items for the third (final) phase of the project will depend on remaining priorities and funds.

We'll keep you updated on the progress made on all fronts.

By the numbers.

Jack Blessing, project treasurer, has just prepared a financial report for the upcoming South Church annual meeting. Some comments about the report...

We still need $7,000 from the community (church members, Newport residents, and local businesses) in order to meet our budget and qualify for a final $5,000 challenge grant. This is a MINIMUM. We have depleted more of the Capital Reserve Fund for contingencies (unanticipated work & materials) than originally planned. So, although we need only $7,000 to complete the current project, any surplus will return to the Capital Reserve in order to fund follow-on projects (e.g. sanctuary painting, carpeting, curtains).

Also noteworthy: for every $1 community contribution to this project, we receive an ADDITIONAL $2.80 in the form of grants, challenges, endowment income, and bequests. Now that's donor leverage!

▶ Download the financial report.

Financial update.

Things are looking good on the fundraising front, as we have received $35,000 in pledges and another $10,000 in anonymous challenge grants after our initial appeal. Our goal for next spring will be to raise another $25,000 in order to complete the third and final phase of the project in the summer or fall of 2011. If you haven't gotten around to pledging, there's still time! If you have already pledged, thank you so much.

Major donors ($1,000+) will receive a copy of the forthcoming book entitled "The Brick Church: Deciphering a window on Newport." Filled with interesting local history, the book tells the story of the 1823 meetinghouse, its unique architecture, and its role in the promotion of Newport as the seat of Sullivan County, formed in 1827. We are preserving much more than a building.

Next up, the steeple.

Fresh off the successful completion of our roofing project, we have contacted our steeple painter to get on the schedule for 2011, perhaps June. Preservation of the steeple is our next priority, as it was last painted over 10 years ago and is showing signs of deterioration in its decorative details. Structurally, we believe that it remains sound, but now is the time to step in with a new coat of protection from the weather. This sort of painting is expensive, time-consuming, and highly specialized. But absolutely necessary.

Roofing completed!

The first phase of the South Church preservation project was completed yesterday. We can now look forward to winter with a secure roof overhead. The new roof, three roofs actually, installed by WeatherCheck LLC of Georges Mills, looks great, and we are thoroughly pleased with their workmanship and diligence. The job site was always neat and safe, the work progressed methodically and without interruption, and the custom copper is a bright reflection of their craftsmanship. We also thank Mike Dazet of Grantham, who dismantled and reconstructed our two chimneys, keeping the whole project on track for completion this month. We can only hope that the high standards set by these contractors will be carried on by those working on the second and third phases of the project next year.

You've got mail.

The fundraising appeal arrived in our mailbox today. It marks the beginning of our community fundraising effort aimed at providing at least $50,000 of the funding required for this whole project. With the extra expenses on the roof, a better target might be $75,000. The mailing itself was produced at home, and at no cost to the church or project, so every dollar raised goes into the building. We hope the appeal is clear, presentable, and professional. Throughout, we have emphasized the works of all those who have maintained and improved the building over the last 188 years. Now it's our turn—in the midst of some uncertain times. Be generous if you're able. Thanks.

The inevitable.

Well, it's been some weeks since the roofing began, and everything remains on schedule, if not on budget. First, the roof grew larger. Apparently, the plans from the mid-1980s specified the wrong area, so we had another 4,000 square feet of materials to purchase. Then we found that water had been running underneath the snow belt, and the sheathing had rotted out. This too seems like an error from the mid-1980s. We had planned on repointing and reflashing the chimneys, but at least one needs to be rebuilt from the roofline up. And then there is about 80 feet of step flashing to replace between the old meetinghouse and the Fellowship Hall addition. Altogether, we are running about $20,000 over our best-case budget. (Perennial optimists, we didn't have a worst-case budget!) As disheartening as these developments might be, they also confirm the need for making these repairs now. The building simply could not wait any longer.

Work begins!

In the beginning there was water. This saga started five years ago with water dripping through the kitchen and bathroom ceilings. After applying much talk and caulk in the interim, we've finally started the first phase of preserving the exterior surfaces of Newport's South Church.

The roofers arrived this morning and have been stripping the north-east portion of the Fellowship Hall addition. This section of the roof was covered with brittle and broken slate shingles, hung on top of a layer of wooden shingles. Both have been removed, and new plywood sheathing is ready to install over the existing boards. That will be covered with ice & water shield, copper valleys and flashing added, followed by 50-year GAF architectural shingles, which were a grudging concession to the extraordinary expense of installing a new slate roof.

Our goal is to preserve the historic materials used to construct the church, but here are the facts: (1) the existing slate was beyond repair, (2) replacing slate on just this portion of the roof would increase our expenses by over $30,000, jeopardizing other needed work, and (3) the slate was old but not original (the underlying wooden shingles were probably the original layer from 1871). 

Counting down.

It's a little hard to believe, but we expect to start replacing the roof after Labor Day. There are still some last-minute details to address, but materials have been ordered. Final specifications made. Insurance is ready. Financing is ready. Dumpster placement is decided. With good weather, this first phase of the project will be completed by early October. Meanwhile we'll be soliciting bids for phase two: steeple painting. Oh, we'll be asking for money too.

We're still working.

Since we last posted an update here, all sorts of progress has been made behind the scenes. We have divided the work into three broad tasks (roofing, steeple, and everything else) and selected Weathercheck LLC as the roofing contractor back in early May.

Because of unexpected delays in getting final approval from LCHIP and DHR, we will not begin that portion of the work until September 2010. In the meantime, we'll be working on finalizing the specifications for the rest of the work and perhaps accomplishing some of the smaller painting projects and carpentry over the summer. Work on the steeple had been planned for the fall, so we need to finalize a contract and strategy for that work as well.

We have the funds for roofing, but the rest of the project remains unfunded at this point, so fundraising is now (finally) a top priority. We've delayed as long as possible while all the other puzzle pieces were put into place, but now it's critical if we are to meet our timetable. The church's Finance Committee and Trustees have taken up the challenge of raising about $75,000 from the congregation and wider community. With the $15,000 challenge grant and some other early commitments, we're off to a good start.

It's official...

We received the letter from LCHIP in the mail today—and checked the web site just for good measure. The LCHIP press release and list of grants are both available for viewing.

The South Church annual meeting will be held after services on Sunday, and the news will be shared with the full congregation. Some already know, of course, but for others it will come as a complete and welcome surprise.

▶ Read the South Church press release.

Excellent news!

There were a few new messages on the answering machine today. 

Here's the first: Amy Dixon calling from LCHIP in Concord. The LCHIP board met yesterday and APPROVED the grant request made on behalf of South Church. This is truly excellent news, which we'll announce at the Finance Committee meeting tomorrow morning.

Next we hope this news will generate interest and enthusiasm for the private donor solicitations that compose the final third of our funding package. There's a lot more work ahead, but we're getting closer to the goal!

Another puzzle piece.

Using the descriptions published in a 1910 book on Concord (NH) neighborhoods and the 1858 and 1892 Merrimack County residence maps, we found a cluster of houses built by John Leach, designer and builder of South Church. We also located Leach's own residence, a more modest two story brick house on Fayette Street — dating from the 1840s, we believe.

According to some histories, the land on which the house sits was given to him by Sampson Bullard, a friend interested in developing that section of town. [Other sources insist that Leach declined the offer.] In the 1860 census, Leach is counted in Concord's 6th Ward along with his wife and a school-aged girl from Ireland, who provided domestic help for the Leaches, then in their 70s.

While this discovery has no direct bearing on the South Church meetinghouse, it does help us sketch a more complete picture of John Leach's career, which has never been fully documented.

A new pastor is called.

The congregation at South Church called a new settled minister today. Rev. Craig Cowing will be moving to Newport from New York in about six weeks to serve as South Church's full-time minister. In accepting the call, Rev. Cowing mentioned that he has long been interested in New England church architecture and is excited to be working in South Church's meetinghouse, which he first saw pictured in books almost 30 years ago. Excellent news!

A site visit.

The folks from LCHIP stopped by this rainy morning to get a firsthand look at our project and to see how the church fits into the wider Newport community. We appreciated the opportunity to show them the unique architectural features of the meetinghouse, inside and out. The words and photos included in our grant application could not possibly tell the whole story.

LCHIP grant application.

We drove our Land & Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP) grant application down to Concord this morning, a few hours before the noon submission deadline. 

Although we had already done much of the groundwork, the one missing item was a documented estimate for the project and its various components. This proved more difficult than expected, as one well-regarded steeplejack who had viewed the job became unreachable.

Having held out hope for as long as possible, we invited a local contractor to survey the job with just days to spare; he provided the numbers we needed in the nick of time. And there was more good news: his numbers matched our off-the-cuff estimate of the total cost, so our targets remained unchanged at $160,000. Our LCHIP request was $50,000, matching what we already have committed from our Capital Reserve Fund. We must raise at least $60,000 in private donations in order to fully fund the project — and perhaps twice that much if we are unsuccessful in our grant request.

The inevitable.

We just got word last week that Roger Daly, our interim minister since the fall of 2007, will be leaving on October 4 to accept a new position in Rindge, NH. The pastoral search committee is still working through their list of candidates for a settled minister, so it may be some months before a call is made. Meanwhile, our former assistant pastor, Rev. Alice Roberts, will be guiding the congregation.

A fresh start?

After many months simmering on the back burner, a bequest has provided an opportunity to launch the fundraising effort needed to move this project ahead. And just in time. The mandatory grant-writing workshop for the next round of LCHIP applications will be held on September 10 in Concord. We'll be there, as we hope to leverage this donation through a grant award and additional contributions. The fundraising climate is still quite poor, of course, but the scope of this project is modest and reasonable.

There was a nice article on the Eagle Block in the latest issue of "Kearsarge Magazine" but no mention of James Breck or any connection with South Church down the street. Still, we hope it keeps Newport's historic preservation efforts on the radar.

Look familiar?

You never know when something will rekindle interest in a project. Having thoroughly researched the architectural history of the South Church, we were surprised to run across a familiar looking church facade on the cover of "New Hampshire Profiles" magazine (February 1961 issue). 

No, it wasn't the South Church of Newport. It was an architectural cousin like those already documented by historian Peter Benes in his Templeton Run. At Jaffrey (NH) the 1775 meetinghouse was retrofitted with an Elias Carter style steeple—a fact that has appeared as a footnote on the map of Carter's influence. Now we learn that the 1764 meetinghouse in Westmoreland was moved twice, enlarged, and then remodeled in the Carter style, complete with a new porch, pilasters, elliptical window, and a truncated steeple missing one octagonal stage. These renovations were undertaken in 1824 and completed with the installation of a Revere bell in 1826.

Final roundtable.

Representatives from most of the northern New England churches participating in the New Dollars training program met today in Manchester (NH) to share their stories. Tuomi Forest of Sacred Places and Maggie Stier of NH Preservation hosted the session. Rick Monahan, our preservation architect, was also there to present a generic project model that he is developing for use with clients.

The participants reported a variety of experiences. Some were celebrating successful completions. Some were wrestling with their congregations. One project had been suspended just a day earlier. 

Here at Newport we've been going slowly—laying more groundwork, holding special work days, fostering ownership of our facilities, learning more about our structure each day. Rick just delivered the Building Conditions Survey, so now we will be reviewing his advice and estimates to scope out our project and help establish a sustainable maintenance policy for the future.

A draft, at last.

Today we received a draft report from Rick, our preservation architect. We'll review what's there, make sure the scope matches our expectations, correct any inaccuracies, and fill in some blanks. This draft does not include the truly critical information: project priorities and cost estimates. We eagerly await the next iteration, which promises those sections.

A roundtable discussion.

Representatives from Acworth, East Derry, Lisbon, Newport, and Penacook met today in order to share ideas and learn about the current status of each other's projects. The meeting was facilitated by the NH Preservation Alliance and was quite helpful, as each church is at a slightly different stage. Some are planning, some are fundraising, some are circling back to previous steps but all share two constraints: funding and staffing. Some are making progress by collaborating with the town or neighboring entities. Others feel stymied but remain hopeful.

Within this peer group, we think the Newport project will be modest in scope, complexity, and expense. We are still awaiting the architect's report and estimates. In the meantime, we are connecting with the local historical society and other organizations, drafting magazine and newspaper articles, and cleaning up our church database—all this in preparation for the uncomfortable work of fundraising.

Another look.

We met again with architect Rick Monahon this afternoon. This was his second site visit and his first look around the snow-less foundation. We also climbed up to the belfry to inspect the timbers, see the old Revere bell with its new striking mechanism, and visually check the balustrade at that level—which seemed quite high enough, but there were still the two octagonal stages, dome, and "Flying Breeches" weathervane above our heads! Well, at least we could survey the meetinghouse roof below. The good news is that the building's needs still appear to be what we had always expected: masonry repair, painting, and roofing.

A celebration?

The town of Newport will mark the 250th anniversary of its charter in 2011, and the Newport Historical Society is hosting a meeting to do some brainstorming. Since it was first constructed, the South Church of Newport has participated in town celebrations. What a great opportunity for the church to highlight its deep connections to the history of the town. We can offer exhibit and program space, and we can tell our own story to a wide audience.

Preservation conference.

The NH Preservation Alliance's "Preserving Community Character Conference" up at Plymouth State was well attended and covered a broad range of topics. Best of all, all of the outside consultants to the South Church project were there, so we reconnected and planned the next steps. More architectural research. More historical research. More building surveys. More project outreach.

A soft rollout.

It's about time to reintroduce this project to church members. We've been collecting the history and images of South Church for over a year, and our Keynote presentation is growing long. Today we introduced members of the "Afternoon Circle" to some of our historical research. 

This was an opportunity to present topics in more depth than we might have done with an audience less familiar with the church: the rivalry and collaboration of Newport's wealthiest businessmen, the gradual separation of church and state, and the truncated pastorate of the Rev. James Ripley Wheelock, grandson of Dartmouth College's Eleazar Wheelock—dismissed a week before the brick church's dedication. These are all topics that won't get much mention in the "real" presentations but are good sidebar stories that we might use for articles in local media.

A building tour.

Today we met architect Rick Monahon. He will be surveying the building and helping us prioritize and quantify the full scope of the project. There is still too much snow for much exterior inspection, but we will explore the depths and heights from the inside, just to see how the structure was built and where external problems are manifested on the interior. Fortunately, our walk-through went as we had hoped: no new areas of concern. We'll schedule another visit after the snow melts in order to look at the exterior.

An introduction.

Time to bring the minister into the project. Our full team met with our project "coach" and NH Preservation representative, Maggie Stier. A good meeting to review recent developments and plan our next steps. Also, a surprising personal connection.

Training 201: Fundraising

Again a two-day session. This time it's all about the money. Where to find it. How to ask for it. The bad news... grants are few and far between and no one would be lining up to fund our project. No surprise, I guess, but you can always hope. The majority of the money must be raised from within the congregation itself, perhaps some more from the wider community, and then if we were very lucky a private foundation or LCHIP match might complete the package.

A new minister, at last.

Our interim search committee had met with interim minister candidates. We are thrilled to receive the good news that our first choice has agreed to join us. When and how we will bring him into this project remains to be seen, but at least we can finally complete our team and count on some exposure from the pulpit.

Training 101: Basic Research

Our first training sessions were conducted on Friday and Saturday. The days were long, but the presenters and material were engaging. This was precisely the sort of thing we needed to hear. Our summer-long assignment: learn about the architectural and historical significance, learn about the building, past and present, and quantify its contribution to the community. 

More importantly, we learned that some people faced much more difficult problems.

We think we can do this!

Good news. Now what?

This note arrived in the e-mail box today:

I am pleased to tell you that Newport’s South Congregational Church has been chosen to participate in the upcoming fund-raising training program for New HampshireMaine and Vermont churches.

Whatever happens, we'll be getting some much-needed expertise.

Beat the deadline.

This note arrived in the e-mail box today.

Your application for the New Dollars, New Partners training program was received today.  Thank you.  Notification will be in one week.

We made the deadline... and won't have to wait long to see whether this is the route we take.

Is there help?

Someone heard about a presentation to be made down in Manchester, NH, by a group called "Sacred Spaces." There was mention of "new dollars" and "new partners" and other positive-sounding things. One of our members heard the pitch and came away interested. Working with the NH Preservation Alliance, the Sacred Spaces team was offering a comprehensive training course for churches facing expensive building repairs or renovations. It sounds good, but only five churches each from New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine will be admitted via a grant application process.

Now we need to find three members willing to sign on for the four days of training—and everything else the project might entail. We are also supposed to have our pastor on the team, but he's leaving the church in June, so that is impossible. The application deadline is April 29.

The roof is leaking.

This story begins with a leaky roof—water dripping from the kitchen ceiling onto the stove below. This is not in the oldest part of the building but in a newer addition behind the sanctuary. Caulking gun in hand, volunteers headed for the slate roof as soon as the weather permitted.

This is a problem. A leaky roof, ignored, can destroy a building. The Trustees asked the congregation what to do at the next Annual Meeting. With good sense, the meeting voted to raise $100,000 in order to replace all the roofs with new slate, which is the most expensive but most durable option available.

Enthusiasm waned as the prospect of raising the money grew more dim with each passing member. The congregation once included more than its share of generous business leaders— but their numbers were dwindling. While some churches struggle with problems 10x the scale, even $100,000 seemed like a stretch. The leaky roof would have to wait come what may. Add it to the prayer list!

© New Hampshire Steeples, 2012