More than eight years ago, leaks at the Old First Reformed Church in Park Slope caused a portion of the ceiling to collapse. Or so they thought.
“Our approach in a situation like that, if we don’t know what’s going on, is to say by no means should you should be using the sanctuary,” said Michael Devonshire, Director of Conservation at the architectural firm Jan Hird Pokorny Associates. They were hired to oversee repairs at the historic church, the cost of which is projected to total $10 million.
Designed by the architect George L. Morse, the Old First Reformed Church at 126 7th Avenue, at the corner of Carroll Street, was built in 1893. Neo-Gothic in style, it is not landmarked, falling just outside of the original Park Slope Historic District established in 1973 (it is on the National Register).
When the architects got closer to the ceiling, they discovered the problem. “The copper ribs are made of plaster that’s run in a mold,” said Devonshire. “They were attached to small framing ribs in the ceiling with mild iron screws. The paint that was used on the building is what’s called calcimine paint, a milk protein-based paint that was used on everything in the 19th and very early 20th century. The problem was when it gets damp, even from atmospheric condensation, it wants to turn back into milk.”
The screws, which held the plaster into the wood framing, ended up rusting. The rust caused expansion of the screws, which popped the plaster. Jan Hird Pokorny Associates realized they had to refasten all the ribs.
Calcimine paint had to be stripped off all the ribs, which were repainted, and some were re-created where the material had been lost. The coffered panels, which needed to be touched up, retain their original calcimine paint.
During the first phase of the restoration, the architect firm worked with Milan Church Restoration. Exterior renovations were handled by PRESERV Building Restoration Management.
The ceiling was their main concern and their top priority. But more work needed to be done. “When you’ve got a group of contractors mobilized, the best thing to do is everything that you can while they’re there,” said Devonshire. Because they had to take all the pews out to set up the scaffolding to get to the ceiling, they decided to redo the floor, which had asbestos in the existing floor tiles. (It had originally been carpeted, but the carpet was replaced in the 1950s.)
And once the floor was done, they decided to reconfigure a new arrangement for the pews. Before setting them into their new arrangement, they also decided to refinish them. The sanctuary, which seats 400 on the ground floor and another 200 in the balcony, now features a center aisle and two new smaller aisles.
After revarnishing the pews, they decided to do the altar as well.
All this work allowed the church to reopen on Easter Sunday. But it’s only the beginning. The next phase will tackle the stained glass windows (by Tiffany Studios, William Willet and Otto Heinigke), the rewiring of the main chandelier and repairing the walls and the church’s organ.
“The stained glass in those large rose windows is in very fragile condition,” Devonshire said. The walls, as well, have received “strange” repairs over time.
The third and final phase will address the bathrooms and classrooms. The church is still in the process of raising money for the remaining work.
[Photos by Susan De Vries unless otherwise noted]
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