Renovations nearly done at Quincy’s historic Church of the Presidents
To many, the bell tower atop United First Parish Church on Hancock Street in Quincy will look no different than it did before.
Yet in reality, almost everything has been touched and restored in the seven months that crews have been up on the roof, doing everything from regilding the cupola, to replacing the wood around the support beams, to installing a bell that can be swung and struck.
When the tarps and scaffolding come down by the end of March, the Rev. Sheldon Bennett is expecting something spectacular.
“It is one of a kind. It’s a remarkable historical site as well as a historic congregation,’’ he said. “There’s a lot of history here, but I think with the connection with the Adams presidents, it’s an architecturally historical building, it’s right in the town center, it’s an icon for the city.’’
The restoration of the bell tower on what is commonly called the Church of the Presidents entailed discussions with historians, securing the services of an array of specialized craftspeople, and even tracking down a replacement bell in the Midwest.
The hardest part of the job, however, was finding the money.
According to Bennett, church officials knew the bell tower would need restoration when the roof was repaired in 1999-2000. Yet at the time, funding was being exhausted with the $1.7 million roof project.
“We knew that the tower needed work, but we thought it was a question of repainting it. We had spent all the money we had raised at that point, and decided to defer the tower to a later date,’’ Bennett said.
It was just another project in a long list of renovations that the church, which was established in 1639 and has counted among its members Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, had undertaken in recent decades. Renovations were also made to the cupola in the 1960s, followed by repairs to the roof and sanctuary interior, as well as windows at the turn of the century.
Despite the high cost of previous endeavors, with the city’s adoption of the Community Preservation Act in 2006, the church obtained $80,000 in Community Preservation Funds to start the bell tower project. In 2009, however, project engineers discovered that the condition on top of the church was worse than they had thought and the church set about raising additional funds.
Altogether, the project is costing the church $535,000, with money raised from 2006 through 2011.
A total of $120,000 in Community Preservation grants, an $80,000 grant from the Partners in Preservation grant (obtained through the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the American Express Foundation), a $100,000 grant from the Save America’s Treasures grants (administered by the National Park Service in the Department of the Interior), and $235,000 in contributions from the congregation itself would be used.
That doesn’t include restoration of the bell and the clock, which are both owned by the city and funded separately.
The significance of the restoration, initially planned just for the cupola, columns, and surrounding structure, did not escape notice at City Hall. After all, two of the three US presidents buried in churches lie in the crypts of the Quincy building, and the tower has long been touted as the centerpiece to the revitalization of downtown Quincy.
“There probably isn’t a more important historical landmark, together with Old City Hall, in the city than the church and the bell tower,’’ mayoral spokesman Christopher Walker said. “The mayor made it clear that he would be committed to preserving and restoring the city’s historic treasurers.’’
According to James Edwards, president of the Quincy Historical Society and a principal at Quincy-based Holmes & Edwards Architects Inc., the firm that handled the bell and clock restoration - the city’s share of the work ended up costing about $200,000 in additional Community Preservation money, largely obtained with the help of Mayor Thomas Koch.
“The mayor is to be commended,’’ Edwards said. “This is Community Preservation money that he’s applying to this project. That’s exactly what it was intended to do - preserve Quincy’s fabulous little sliver of history.’’
By the time the funding was accrued and the plans drawn up in July 2011, the rest seemed to fall in place easily, especially with Edwards, a historic restoration specialist, using his contacts to move the process along.
Verdin Bells & Clocks of Cincinnati was called to help find a replacement for the 3,000-pound, cracked bell that had sat in the church tower since 1859. When city officials found out that casting a new bell would cost at least $100,000, they instead started looking for a used one.
A 3,000-pound bell from Chicago, made in 1895, was found. At $38,000, the deal was sealed.
The origins of the bell remain unknown, but it will be etched with a quote from the Rev. John Hancock, father of the signer of the Declaration of Independence, before being installed into the tower.
Soon thereafter, the rigging and hauling company Shaughnessy & Ahern, with whom Holmes & Edwards had previous contacts, slowly installed the bell into the tower. The massive bell barely fit through the columns, with just 3/16ths of an inch clearance on either side.
The clocks, too, were restored by experts in the field, tiny gears inside the inner workings refurbished by clock restorer and Quincy resident Lester Tyrala.
“The clock is in above-average condition, principally because it has had routine inspections throughout the decades,’’ Tyrala said. “It will be decades before it needs any major renovations. The clock is approximately 140 years old, and the amount of wear on it is normal and pretty minimal. If we project this current rate of wear, it’ll be good for another 150 years.’’
Additionally, the clock hands were regilded and the clock faces were stripped and repainted right onto the granite by painters from M.L. McDonald Sales Co. of Watertown.
The tower was rebuilt with painstakingly detailed work by many hands, and all in line with the historical accuracy of the structure.
One reason for the care is that “it’s very visible,’’ Bennett said. Yet even the parts that can’t be seen - from the shape and crafting of the column casings, to the work on the cupola interior - were done with historical accuracy and in the manner it was done in the 19th century.
“We had this discussion with the Massachusetts Historical Commission when they were reviewing our plan,’’ Bennett said. “Because we are a historic site, in 1998 when we applied for Massachusetts Historical Commission funding through the Preservation Projects Fund, we were required to record with the Registry of Deeds a preservation deed restriction. In return for receiving public assistance, we commit to subjecting any future modifications to design review’’ by the commission.
As the city prepares for a ceremony to light the tower and happily ring the bell once again, officials are encouraging residents to witness the start of a new era for the church, a brighter one that references the city’s past.
“It’s to preserve that tradition and enhance this fabulous piece of history,’’ Edwards said. “It’s a real noble endeavor, and it’s something not for [the mayor] or the city per se, but for the city as a whole and the thousands that will walk by and see the beautiful work that was done and hear the bell ring out. It’s a collective achievement for the citizens of the city. Everyone should be proud of it.’’