Steeple Lifted Aloft for Continued Restoration

Three years after it was gently lifted from its towering position above the Norfolk Church of Christ Congregational, the building’s steeple was hoisted back to its rightful spot over the sanctuary Thursday morning.

“This is Christmas all over again, to be able to get behind the scenes a little bit,” said Pastor Erick Olsen. “I was literally able to hold one of the mechanisms for the crane that lifted it up. It was wonderful.”

Designed in 1813 by master builder David Hoadley, the church, which is constructed on the same site as the first one built in 1760, included an elegant steeple that rose from a square clock tower in two octagonal stages capped by balustrades and a tall spire. It bravely endured 206 years of exposure to the elements in a town dubbed the “Icebox of Connecticut” before restoration began.

But an investigation revealed much deterioration and in fall 2020, the church was warned that even a 45-mile-per-hour gale could bring it tumbling down. It was lifted down on Dec. 23 of that year.

Plans were drawn to replace deteriorated wood, to repair decorative urns and arch balusters, to regild the weathervane and to strip, treat and repaint the spire. The clock tower also received much restorative attention and wood-clad steel columns were installed to support the weight of the steeple. 

With a successful capital campaign behind it, the church even had enough money to repair the belfry clock and chimes. The chimes will play a melody written for them by Robbins Battell, a grandson of the Norfolk’s first pastor, was born only four years after the church was constructed. His grandfather, Ammi Ruhamah Robbins, died the year the second church was built.

Lifting the steeple from its cradle to the top of the church was seamlessly accomplished but only after a chilly two-hour wait for the crowd gathered on the village green in 20-degree temperatures. The contractor decided to change the straps that would secure the steeple to the crane after noticing that they would not clear the spire on top of the structure. Then, when all was secure, it was learned that the steeple was frozen to the cradle. Torches were employed to free it from the icy grip. 

On Thursday afternoon, crews from Valley Restoration LLC were welding the new steel super-structure to the supports in the belfry. “That’s most of the job,” said Olsen. “In the near future, they will shroud the steeple in plastic so the men can heat it and work inside the shroud.”

The steel supports will be sheathed in new material replicating the original structure. Some of the original wood was preserved, but some was too badly deteriorated to be reused, according to Steeple Committee member Marie Civco. “It was rot, rot and more rot,” she said. “Someone said the only thing holding it together was the paint.”

“When it is done, it will look like a brand-new version of what was there,” Olsen predicted. 

When the finished steeple is unveiled this spring, the church will hold a celebration. “We want and need to recognize and celebrate the support we have received for this,” said Olsen. “To be pastor of a church that is clearly so important to so many people is humbling.”

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