The steeple of Christ Church, one of the most familiar features of the Philadelphia landscape for going on three centuries, has developed a pronounced list over time. It now leans 22 inches “toward Trenton,” said the Rev. Tim Safford, rector since 1999, thanks to rotting timbers and unstable load-bearing columns.
“When I walk across the Ben Franklin Bridge, it’s frightening to see,” he said.
That’s not to say that the steeple is likely to topple over onto the Arden Theatre if a major hurricane roars through. But it might.
There’s been worry at the church for some time — about 16 years, actually — that preservation of this historic structure, one of the oldest surviving wooden structures in the nation, needs some serious attention.
A 2003 report from the Keast & Hood engineering firm, addressing “immediate needs of the tower and steeple” of the church, noted some decayed and rotted wood, plus other issues. It concluded that while “emergency repairs” were not required, work “should not be postponed for any significant amount of time.”
The church is now closing in on action, and a grant announcement is scheduled for Thursday at a meeting called by the National Endowment for the Humanities at the church, at Second and Market Streets. Christ Church is slated to receive a $500,000 matching grant.
Church officials said they have raised $2.5 million (including the NEH grant) toward the $3.1 million cost of stabilizing and renovating the steeple and the brick tower on which it sits, and now hope the momentum is there to raise the rest of the funds and begin work as early as next month.
“Ideally, we’d like to start right away, as soon as we can,” said Barbara Hogue, executive director of the Christ Church Preservation Trust. “We think it’s a very expensive, but a very short project.” She estimated that work would last six months.
NEH officials said they were meeting at Christ Church for their grant announcements to highlight $28 million in NEH grants nationwide, including 16 Pennsylvania grants totaling nearly $3 million. (One other Philadelphia organization is scheduled to receive a $500,000 grant: Eastern State Penitentiary, which will put the funds toward a new visitor center. A handful of other Philadelphia beneficiaries are getting grants ranging from $6,000 to $400,000.)
Christ Church, which counted Benjamin Franklin and George Washington among its congregants and is a National Historic Landmark, has occupied the same site since 1695.
In 1727, construction began on the current building, which was essentially an expansion of the original wood church. It’s been subsequently modified and enlarged multiple times.
The steeple was designed by the great carpenter-architect Robert Smith and built from 1751 to 1754. Its appearance is virtually unchanged since completion. In 1908, lightning hit the top spire, igniting a fire, but a thunderstorm broke out and suppressed the flames. The spire, which sits atop an open arched loggia, was destroyed and rebuilt, but the rest of the structure was saved.
From 1754 to 1810, Smith’s steeple, reaching 196 feet into the air, made Christ Church the tallest building in the country.
Without an intervention, today’s list toward Trenton risks getting worse, Safford said.
“I think the real concern is if we don’t stop the lean, it will continue to collapse ... in the lower part of the structure," Safford said during a dusty climb up ladders and sharply winding staircases through the steeple interior this week.
As the lean progresses, Safford said, the weight of the steeple becomes more concentrated on one side, compromising the “structural integrity” of the steeple and the square brick tower that forms its base.
“And then what you have to do is take it down and rebuild it or replace it, and that’s what we don’t want to do,” he said. “This was Robert Smith’s greatest piece of work. It put Philadelphia on the map and it is unbelievably beautiful.”
To passers-by, the steeple clearly needs a major paint job. Paint has peeled from cedar shingles and particularly from the copper cladding that covers the upper portions around the octagonal loggia.
A climb up into the steeple reveals more serious and clearly persistent problems.