Some breaking news, literally: a large crack has developed in Old South Church, one of the grand landmarks of Copley Square.
At a joint news conference today, both the church’s senior minister, the Rev. Nancy S. Taylor (above left), and the MBTA’s assistant general manager, Charles L. O’Reilly (above right), said the crack was caused by work done by a T contractor installing elevator shafts to make the Copley Square T station accessible to the handicapped. O’Reilly said the multi-year, $45 million construction project has been indefinitely halted.
Taylor and O’Reilly both said that the T would be responsible for repairing the church, which is a National Historic Landmark; O’Reilly said the T would in turn seek to hold its contractors responsible for the damage.
The construction project was complicated by the fact that the church, like much of the Back Bay, is built on fill, and both church and T officials said they were mindful of the fact that Trinity Church, an Episcopal parish across Copley Square from Old South, was seriously damaged by the construction of the John Hancock Tower three decades earlier.
Taylor said the crack appeared sometime Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, and appeared to have been triggered by a single construction event, rather than to have happened over time. This morning the crack was clearly visible both on the exterior Dartmouth Street wall of the church (which is at the corner of Dartmouth and Boylston, just above one of the Copley Square T entrances) and on the interior of that wall.
The damaged wall is the so-called “fine arts wall” of the church, with 140-year-old stained glass windows, and the workings of one of the largest organs in New England.
Taylor said it is not clear whether there is any structural damage to the church, and she said safety engineers will examine the church today before deciding whether to allow a concert, two weddings, and worship services scheduled for this weekend to proceed. She said it is also not clear whether the organ, which creates significant vibrations when played, is usable. She said there is no estimate of the financial cost of the repairs, and that the value of the church is inestimable.
The T said that its project was mandated in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that it had demanded that the contractors take extra precautions to protect the church’s wall. The church and the T had been talking for more than two years about the project, and had installed monitors on the church walls, and hired a battery of specialists, in an unsuccessful effort to prevent the damage that has now occurred.
Because the Copley Square area is built on fill, underground construction has always been problematic in the area. Trinity Church, across Copley Square from Old South, wound up winning $4 million in a jury award after suing the Hancock for damage caused during construction of the tower in 1975.
Taylor said that Old South was fully supportive of the T project in the interest of making Copley Square more accessible to people in wheelchairs and with other mobility limitations, and she said T officials have been collaborative both in their efforts to prevent the damage and in their pledges to "make the church whole.''
Old South is a congregation of the United Church of Christ, which is the largest Protestant denomination in Massachusetts, and which has also been the denomination of president-elect Barack Obama. The congregation traces its history back more than three centuries, to 1669, when it was established as the Third Church in Boston; it was later renamed Old South, and moved from downtown (the building now called the Old South Meeting House) to its current location in the Back Bay in 1875.
The building, with an exterior of Roxbury puddingstone and a richly colored interior, is considered a fine example of Ruskinian Gothic architecture. It was designed by Charles Amos Cummings in the 1870s, was updated by the Tiffany firm in 1905, and was completely renovated in the mid-1980s by Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott.
News of the damage was first reported by Alecia, a blogging actress who spotted the crack last night when she showed up at the church for a rehearsal. That blog post was brought to wider attention this morning by Universal Hub.
UPDATE: Susannah Abbott e-mails to say that the concert planned at Old South tonight has been moved because of the damage:
"Due to the damage to Old South Church, which precludes the use of the organ, tonight's holiday concert by professional choral ensemble Boston Secession has been relocated to the Church of the Covenant, 67 Newbury Street (between Berkeley and Clarendon Streets). The start time for the concert has been changed from 8:00 to 8:15. Further details about the concert are as follows: Boston Secession presents Chestnuts Roasting: A Secession Holiday Concert, Friday, December 5, 2008 at 8:15 pm, Church of the Covenant, 67 Newbury Street, Boston. A joyous seasonal celebration, overflowing with favorite choral chestnuts. Carols and hymns spanning five centuries – from Sweelinck, Poulenc, Distler, Lauridsen and others – are spiced up, Secession-style, with a sprinkling of parodies by P.D.Q. Bach and Tom Lehrer. And, join us in singing top tunes from Handel’s Messiah – bring your score if you have one!"
(Photos by George Rizer, Globe staff.)