After all this time, I still find it disorienting to read the news and find one of our projects being discussed. In this case, it’s the end (or nearly so) of a long saga for the South Bushwick Reformed Church in Brooklyn, a beautiful wood-frame building from 1853 that looks like it belongs on a village green somewhere. The slender wood spire of the church had the incredibly bad luck to be damaged by a tornado – a weather event that is vanishingly rare in New York – in 2006, leaving it visibly tilted.
Our examination of the heavy-timber frame of the spire showed that the damage was limited to small areas of the connection at the base of the spire, where the octagonal drum rests on the square tower. A relatively small repair that did not require the removal of any of the historic timber was possible and made the structure safe, but taking that approach meant that the spire would remain tilted. Given the context for this project – the church has other building expenses to attend to as well as, of course, its mission – that was the solution chosen, to save the cost of either getting a large crane in place or performing extensive demolition and reconstruction. The picture above shows conditions in 2009; the Brownstoner article has some current photos.
The real story here is not technical. As I’ve discussed with other projects, successful completion of work like this is always a team effort. In this case, the AEC end of the team was small, just OSE (and Shaquana has watched over this project like a hawk for two and a half years) as the designer and Milan Restoration as the contractor. The critical team members, in my opinion, were the church itself, with the effort led by Pastor Stewart, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, which has provided funding and expertise in the non-technical administrative work, and the city agencies the Landmarks Preservation Commission and Department of Buildings, which went somewhat out of their way to help explain the whole process to a non-profit without a lot of money and with no expertise in dealing with building issues. Again and again we see individual building owners or small non-profits or small companies that do not know how to deal with restoration or repair of their buildings. Obviously we help where we can, but structural engineers are, by the nature of our work, not necessarily the best people to guide owners through all the issues. So help from organizations like the Conservancy and from the regulatory agencies makes a huge difference to those owners.
As described in the Brownstoner article, there’s more work to come, but fortunately it’s less dramatic than the spire. To wrap things up, a view from a bit more than 100 years ago: