Saturday, August 29, 2009

Preservation Funds Help Save City Churches

Consultant Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner reveals findings of a preservation study at First Unitarian Society of Plainfield.

Note: This story was written last year but never published. Part Two will be an update.

PLAINFIELD – In the late 19th century, there was no lack of wealthy benefactors to help build city churches. But now congregations must look to preservation funding to keep the buildings standing.

In keeping with that trend, First Unitarian Society of Plainfield took the initial step in 2007 of seeking a grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust to assess the condition of the church that was founded with the help of the city’s first mayor, Job Male.

The church was fortunate to count as a member preservation consultant Stacy Spies, who prepared the highly detailed application.

“Putting together the nomination was very exciting for me, since I love combing through archives – the ‘detective work’ part of the job I love,” Spies said.

Among its highlights: First Unitarian Society is the oldest Unitarian society in New Jersey. It is within the boundaries of the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District. Its architect was Oscar Teale, described by Spies as an “important and prolific” 19th century designer of churches in Plainfield and vicinity.

Once the grant was secured, church officials were able to hire Historic Building Architects of Trenton to make the assessment. A team of preservationists examined early blueprints and then scoured every inch of the building in a probe that preservation consultant Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner likened to a CSI forensic exam. The result was a 15-year plan to put the church “back up to where it should be in terms of care and maintenance.”

And that’s how the $54,000 initial grant led to the sobering $5 million projected tab to save the edifice.

Church leaders are hoping the assessment plus a report on the historic significance of the structure will help garner $450,000 in preservation funding to address the most pressing needs. The church will also have to raise many thousands of dollars through a capital campaign.

It is a scenario that several other city churches know well. St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Grace Episcopal Church, Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church and the Friends Meeting House have all received grants from the New Jersey Historic Trust.

The Rev. Robert Martin said Crescent Avenue Presbyterian church has just received a third grant to provide handicapped access to the Gothic cathedral that is a focal point for music programs, including those of the Plainfield Symphony. He described the grant process as arduous throughout.

“The paperwork is daunting,” he said. And once a grant is received, there are many proofs to be made of how the money was spent.

Crescent benefited from publicity of its need for restoration by the group, Partners for Sacred Spaces. The Philadelphia group gave no funding, but provided national attention to the church’s need. The church was also able to provide letters of support from numerous groups that use the building for educational, cultural and community health activities. Following a stabilization phase, Crescent is now ready to begin replacing failed cast stone this summer and fall, Martin said.

“We were able to raise almost $750,000,” he said

A matching grant would allow the church to restore about half the building, “which would be great,” Martin said.

Each additional grant triggers an audit of past use of the trust funds, he said. And the church must pay costs of the audit.

Still, both Martin and The Rev. Carolyn Eklund of Grace Episcopal Church lauded the opportunity and praised church volunteers who devoted countless hours to preparing the applications.

“I have been really impressed with New Jersey’s commitment to the restoration of historical properties, not just churches,” Eklund said.

She noted that urban churches are not just filled once a week for worship, but have become hubs for diverse community activities and services.

At First Unitarian Society, longtime member Gerry Heinzer is coordinator of the Property and Planning ministry and is in the forefront of the preservation effort.

“Nobody looks in the nooks and crannies where the nastiness is happening,” he said.

The assessment grant allowed Radcliffe-Trenner’s team to do just that.

She found the arch-enemy of historic buildings, water in the wrong places, had taken such a toll on the church that decidedly non-historic black plastic drains had to be strategically installed all around the building. Squirrels had chewed holes and stored up acorns inside the church. Vines, mold and other “biological growth” were attacking the exterior.

By the time Radcliffe Trenner finished a February 2008 slide show on what she called “a whole well-check” of the building, members who gathered in the Parish Hall sat in seeming stunned silence at the findings. The Robinson Window, a stained-glass marvel of images that summed up the denomination’s tenets, was installed in 1947, but by Radcliffe-Trenner’s reckoning, was likely to fail within three years unless it was professionally restored. A 1925 slate roof that should have been good for a century was “a bit dodgy on quality” and already at the end of its life, she said. Some walls and floors did not pass muster.

As church president Jody Hey announced that the board was launching a capital campaign, no one in the room could doubt the need.

The congregation now has a plan - and high hopes to join the ranks of other city churches which are saving their buildings not with the largesse of long-gone city millionaires, but with a helping hand from the New Jersey Historic Trust.

--Bernice Paglia


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