Upham's Corner Online

First Parish Church Meetinghouse Restoration Project

Posted: July 25, 2011     Nancy J Conrad  
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First Parish Church on Meetinghouse Hill (10 Parish St, Dorcester) was built at the turn of the 20th century and constitutes the sixth incarnation of worship buildings dating back to the founding of the original church on Pleasant Street in 1630, almost four centuries ago.

Walk towards Meetinghouse Hill from Quincy Street or Bowdoin Street.  Stand on the steps of St. Peter's Church and look up the hill.  Even in its current state of deterioration, First Parish Curch stands as a beacon of light for the people in the surrounding neighborhoods and reminds us of the eons of history that makes Dorchester and Boston such important communities in our nation.

First Parish Church has been working on the formation of a restoration plan the which will not only restore the historic structure but add energy efficiency, new interior spaces, updated or new building systems, handicap access and much more.  The $5.2M project is organized in four phases over five years.

On Thursday, April 28, 2011 the church held a Mettinghouse Restoration Project Information Session.  What work is the church undertaking?  How can the community get involved? how can we contribute to this worthy undertaking? 

Three months later, at 9 AM on August 2, 2011 First Parish is hosting a groundbreaking ceremony .  Mayor Menino will attend as the featured guest speaker.

The entire congregation is excited and deeply committed to the restoration work and they look forward to a time when their facilties can contribute more actively to the Dorchester community.

Restoration Information Brochure The Meetinghouse Restoration Project Guide http://firstparishdorchester.org/restoration.shtml
First Parish Church Restoration First Parish Church Restoration First Parish Church Restoration

In 1630 the original church was on Pleasant Street.  In its place there is a granite marker in front of the playground at the intersection of East Cottage Street and Pleasant Street.  it marks the location of where the church originally stood.
In 1670 the church was put on rollers and brought up Meetinghouse Hill. It was located where the Civil War monument is located across the street.
First Parish divided around 1813 when Dorchester was getting too large for one church.  That's when the Codman Square church, second church was built.
A new church was built "higher up the hill" in the colonial revival style [same location as existing church] but that burned in 1896. 
Existing building designed by Christopher Wren and is the sixth building used by the church built in same location as the 1816 church.

Rev Arthur Laoie, current pastor of First Parish Church, spoke with Upham's Corner News.

I'm just completing my sixth year here.  I am a Unitarian Universalist minister and deeply interested in both the history and the architecture of the church but what is most important to me are the people. 

When I went into search for a new placement, this congregation - it's building and its people and its mission - really appealed to me.  I wanted to do ministry in an urban environment.  I was fascinated by the urban makeup of Dorchester, by the history of this church and by the people here who are really trying to have an impact in the community and open up the congregation again to have a more positive role in the community.

The congregation has built up since the time I first came, significantly.  What has attracted the people to come here? 
  • Unitarian Universalism is a fairly liberal religious alternative so I think people were looking for that. 
  • We've had a number of families joining who are looking for a more liberal alternative that included multiple religious traditions to educate their children. 
  • We've had a number of people from the community who are also drawn to the church’s mission in history. 
It was the congregation of the First Parish Church that founded Dorchester in 1630.  It is the original church and represents the original founding of this community.  Throughout its history this church has had a positive role and a lot of impact on the community and has, in many ways, been central to the life of the community at different times in its history. 

Today's parishioners are hoping to have that happen again, to be able to play a significant role in the development of community.

The church is not in "good physical health."  A restoration project is just "what the doctor ordered."  So what are some of the existing conditions and what are the restoration plans?  Again - from Rev. Lavoie.

The goal is to restore the church to its original condition in all aspects.  That's important for the historic grants that we are getting.  We cannot arbitrarily choose to restore some sections and not others.  We have to do a complete historic restoration.   This whole time we will not be shutting down. 

The total project is a four phased project at $5.2 million. 

Phase I - Urgent Repairs
Phase 1 is $300,000 and is defined to be the urgent repairs - the deteriorating chimneys, the parapets and the corners of the church that are allowing water infiltration.  Where the finials are sitting is the parapets.  There is a very large central chimney that rises up at the back of the sanctuary.  We've already had to have several feet of the chimney taken down because it was in such bad shape.  The chimney will be restored to its original height.
Phase 2  - Exterior Painting
Phase 2 is the exterior piece of the project at a cost of $2 million. 

The rumor is the minister who was here for the last half of the 20th century would hire kids in the neighborhood to paint the building at different times.  We don't know when the last time it was professionally painted.

First the entire building will be wrapped and sealed so that the old paint can be chemically stripped.  Our assumption is that it is old lead paint.  So we will completely strip the building and restore the clapboards.  This is what our architect has recommended. The architect is a history works architect - Wendell Howell so McGinley Kelso and Associates out of Somerville.  They have done many many churches and other historic buildings.

The intention is to use green products and green techniques.  This will be a green project. 
Phase 3 - Interior & Programmatic Changes
Phase 3 is the interior and programmatic changes - the floor plan structure, mechanical systems, heating systems. 

A section of the building on the second floor, used for education classes, does not meet the needs of our current congregation.  The rooms are somewhat confining and prohibitive.  They are not laid out very well nor are they conducive to large groups of children and children learning. 

We want to reconfigure that section  of the church so that it lends itself better to the program that is currently in place and going forward that we can expand and grow.  You we also want to make changes to make the building accessible.

We need a new heating system and we need to put in an elevator and a ramp.  So we’re building an extension on the back of the building to accommodate an elevator and a stairway so there is a second egress from the second floor. 

Phase 4  - Exterior Landscaping
Phase 4 is the exterior landscaping, the fence around the perimeter - some of the cosmetic items that will have to be completed after a lot of other are addressed.  We may have to punch a lot of holes to create access and these will need to be repaired.  The fourth phase is more like a cleanup phase.

Approximately in the year 2000, a new roof was put on the church.
Lantern Removed
The First Parish Church steeple is called a wedding cake steeple because of all the different layers.  At the base is the bell tower which has been and continues to be structurally sound.  However the roof of the bell tower was collapsing and was allowing the top of the steeple (called the Lantern) to lean into the church. 

We removed it in 2006 and put in the yard across the street.  We have now restored the Bell Tower so the building is fully ready to support the lantern.  Once we complete work on the exterior of the building, we will return the Lantern to the top of the building.  Working on the exterior of the buildingis a high priority right now.
More about Interior Changes
Layout Changes

The parlor in the parish hall, because they're such beautiful historic spaces, there will not be any change to these spaces.  There will be a hallway down the side of the parlor, so the kitchen will be smaller, narrower and will be upgraded to be a commercial kitchen- standards and codes so that it can be used commercially.    

At the back of the building will be an elevator on one side and a stairway on the other side, so we need to build a hallway to access the elevator and stairway   We will also be converting office space into restrooms.

The back of the church consists of offices and children's spaces but they are not great spaces for children.  We plan to gut the entire wing and make it into child friendly spaces.  We are hoping to partner a day care center, an afterschool program so that the space is used during the day.  Part of what we want to do is have the church used more often.  We have such a large building. 

Restoration of the Organ

When this church burned in 1896, the West church in Boston was closing on Cambridge Street.  It is now a Methodist Church.  Someone bought the pulpit of that church and gave it to First Parish as it was being rebuilt.  At that time Dorchester was a bedroom community for some of Boston's more wealthy families, so no expense was spared to construct and to beautifully decorate and to buy one of the best pipe organs available.  It is a Hutchins organ.  As part of the restoration project we also plan a complete restoration of the organ.  After 100 years the leathers are starting to go.  A complete replacement of all the leather will cost a quarter of $1 million.

Rebuilding Together Boston
Rebuilding Together Boston is a Boston-based organization where contractors donate one day of their time.   First Parish applied and was awarded April 30, 2011 as a work day - repainting the entire interior hallway and rebuilding the front porch area and the steps.  The construction firm that has volunteered to oversee the project also manages any volunteers
One of the major changes to the HVAC system will be to create multiple zones so we can heat just particular areas of the church.  We also want to utilize some green heating products for example radiant heat in the sanctuary. It is one of the hardest areas of the church to heat.  Underneath the floor is very accessible. 

Heating with a conventional air blown system is not very efficient so we are considering radiant flooring, radiant heat under the floor.  This would be a more passive heating system.  A makeup air system would then be used that will recirculate.  It's a way to bring in fresh air from the outside and recirculating warm air within the building and.  So you're capturing the warm air and recirculating it back in.

Church Bell
The bell still works.  It is not electronic.  We have a pull cord whch is located behind the organ.  On Sunday mornings we ring the bell about 5 min. before the service starts.  The traditional use is to call people to service. 

When there is a wedding or a funeral, we also ring the bell.  Often we invite the bride and groom if they would like to come up at the end of the service and ring the bell together.

There is a very sturdy, well-built ladder system that that will eventually go all the way up to the top of the lantern once it has been put back in place.  And, yes, I have climbed to the very top. 

Unanswered Questions
A lot of the decisions about the processes that will be used have not yet been made.  We have defined the scope, define the problems, defined how we wanted to address them in a process method.  As we approach each phase of the project, we will be spending a lot of time defining the actual particulars.
  • What are we doing to maintain the historic nature of the windows yet improve their insulation capability?
  • Do the exterior walls have any insulation? Will they?
  • What is the condition of the wood under the badly deteriorated paint?
For example, not only is the paint in bad condition but the structure underneath has suffered. We also plan to restore the wrought iron fence. You can see at the foundation, it is completely coming apart.  We believe it is the lime in the concrete interacting with the rot iron that is causing it to dissolve. 

All of the windows we have been told are in a restorable condition.  Even the set of windows that are blocked but that's because they're at the back of the stage wil be restored. 

The church has a slate roof.  The truss system was not designed to carry the amount of weight that the roof carries, especially when there is snow.  In its original configuration the church was underdesigned. 
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