Philadelphia’s Christ Church preserves historic steeple

The Christ Church weather vane and miter were gilded and replaced on top the steeple. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Christ Church weather vane and miter were gilded and replaced on top the steeple. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A centuries-old artifact of architectural, church and American history is being restored.

Philadelphia’s Christ Church steeple design dates back to 1754 when Scottish immigrant and architect Robert Smith completed the project.

“It was the Comcast Tower of its time,” said Christ Church rector, Rev. Tim Safford. “It put Philadelphia on the map. It proved to the European world that Philadelphia was a first-class city.”

It was America’s tallest structure until 1810, with a weather vane reaching 196 feet.

Church officials knew in the early 2000s that the tower and steeple would need work. It’s leaning almost two feet. That’s bothered Rev. Safford every time he crossed the Ben Franklin Bridge. The restoration will stabilize the structure from further deterioration, though it won’t straighten it. Pulling it on one side of the structure would threaten the structural integrity of the entire building. Scaffolding was erected around the tower and steeple in August, and restoration — including repointing, shingling, and reinforcement with steel beams to prevent further leaning. This is all being done with help from a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 

Haverstick-Borthwick Company’s George Dalessandro, the foreman of the project, has always been into history. He and the other workers marvel at “C.I.P. 1789” and “J.E. Dodd 1849,” dates and initials carved into beams, ladders, and floors in the steeple. The foreman says his team identifies with the engravings because builders are proud of their work. Dalessandro declares “W.W. 1797” to be the “high holy” of the carvings. It’s carved onto a wooden ladder about 100 feet off the ground nearing the steeple. He believed the W.W. stands for William White, the first Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States and chaplain of the Continental Congress.

Climb another hundred feet for a breathtaking view of Philadelphia and the Ben Franklin Bridge. Ben Franklin is buried in the Christ Church cemetery at 5th and Market streets, in colonial times, the outskirts of the city. A few weeks ago, Dalessandro and two other men placed the 50-pound weather vane and gilded miter of Christ Church, restored by the Materials Conservation Co., back on the steeple’s spire. “It’s eerie to me how powerful it is an artifact,” Rev. Safford said. The miter’s 13 stars represent the original colonies. The steeple is also the last remnant of the colonial era in the Philadelphia skyline.

Christ Church leadership said this round of restoration was really kick-started with a gift from late Philadelphian and recital organist Esther Wideman in 2015. Wideman wasn’t a parishioner of Christ Church but donated a large sum of money to partially restore and partially replace a mechanical action organ that dates back to 1838. In December of 2015, the C.B. Fisk organ-building company began preparing for the restoration, including an acoustical evaluation of the church, before the removal of the pipes and casing in 2016. The organ was dedicated in Esther Wideman’s name in May of 2018 and contains 3,099 pipes of wood and metal. Christ Church assistant minister Rev. Susan Richardson believes Wideman’s gift to restore the organ was for the wider Philadelphia community. “The steeple and tower are a beacon,” she said, “ the organ is sort of the voice of that,” said Richardson.

Christ Church’s new organ was completed in 2017. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The scaffolding is expected to come down and the skyline restored by January of 2020.

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