by Nat Frothingham
On the strength of a last-minute grant, three critical architectural elements that grace the steeple of the Unitarian Church of Montpelier are to be restored.
As recently as a few weeks ago, it seemed almost certain that the ornamental elements would be lost. In the third week of August, Jay Southgate of Southgate Steeplejacks began working on the steeple, intending to make minor repairs, stain the shingles, and paint the elements in question: the longitudinal white ribs that follow and define the lines of the steeple, an ornamental band that rings the steeple about halfway up, and, at the top, an embellishment called a finial, which, as the name suggests, completes the steeple esthetically.
Southgate knew the church well: He had restored the steeple in 2000. Now he was being asked to paint it again. Because of his knowledge of the building and the material he was working with—and some of that material is 150 years old—he was not surprised to find the three elements in very bad shape.
Peter Thoms is a Unitarian Church member, the church historian and a member of the committee that saw to the painting of the church’s exterior two years ago. In a phone interview with The Bridge, he discussed the dilemma faced by the church as members tried to determine whether or not the congregation could afford to save and restore the ornamental features.
Said Thoms, “We hired Jay to paint the steeple. In the process we learned some difficult things about it. We are very confident in Jay’s wide experience, extraordinary skills and commitment to the project. We have a lot of respect for him. And yet there we were. We didn’t have the money to restore all these elements.”
“It’s a financial challenge—maintaining the building and allowing the church to do many other things relating to [its] mission.”
While these issues surrounding the architectural elements—and, indeed, the historic integrity of the steeple—hung in the balance, an effort in another part of Montpelier began to coalesce to quickly find the $15,000 to restore the architectural details. The result was a phone call from a representative of the Montpelier Heritage Group (MHG) offering the church a $15,000 grant to replicate the steeple’s original details.
On September 21, the Unitarian congregation met and voted 53-1 to accept the grant and ask Southgate to include restoration of the ornamental structures as part of the steeple painting and restoration project. Church members expressed deep appreciation for MHG’s generosity.
Said Thoms, “It’s going to be a great result. Within a couple of weeks, Jay has to make every single piece. He will make new ribs—eight of them—which are 35 feet long. He’s got to make the band and the finial, a complex structure with 14 parts.”
John Russell, an active MHG member, paid tribute to Eric Gilbertson, long-time champion of historical preservation and one-time director of the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation, for his help in sealing the deal. Russell likewise thanked Anthony Otis, Les Blomberg and Steve Everett of the Heritage Group.
Said Russell, “Montpelier should be very grateful to the community-oriented people at the church and to Eric Gilbertson. It was the greater community coming to the aid of the smaller community.”