Restoring: First Congregational Church

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Constructed in 1895, the First Congregational Church of Portland is a dominant Venetian Gothic icon along the city’s South Park Blocks. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a Portland Landmark, this historic structure towers above its neighbors, quite literally, with its 175′ bell tower at the southwest corner. This tower was once accompanied by two others on adjacent corners, which were removed in 1940 following significant storm damage. Existing conditions prior to the summer 2015 restoration included extreme deterioration of the wood Gothic tracery arches at the belfry. As the last remaining tower on the building, the restoration of these elements was a crucial component in retaining the architectural integrity of this historic church.

What was the scope of the project and what were the design goals?

With its severe level of deterioration, the restoration of the Gothic tracery was not only an aesthetic decision, but also a safety precaution after a loose piece fell onto the sidewalk below. The First Congregational Church turned to Versatile and Arciform to stabilize and restore the wood elements of this feature. As with any preservation project, the goal was to retain as much of the original fabric as possible and to maintain the character defining features of the original design. The four tower faces all required work, but the south elevation suffered the most significant damage due to exposure and UV damage. The tracery at this location was removed and restored in-house at Versatile. The other elevations were in fair enough condition to be restored on-site by the Arciform team.

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What challenges did the project face?

The location of the architectural details proved to be the biggest challenge. Nearly 175′ up in the air and surrounded by scaffolding, the south elevation tracery was cut into sections and lowered to the ground for transportation to Versatile’s shop.

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It quickly became apparent that not only were the face-applied details of the tracery loose and deteriorating, but the backerboard holding the element together was also unstable. It arrived to the shop in pieces, like an oversized puzzle of fragile history. Another challenge was in the design itself. What appeared to be repetitive details in the columns and tracery were in fact unique, prohibiting the efficiency of replicating one element to be reused as a template throughout the entire tracery at similar locations.

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What were the Uniquely Versatile solutions?

Once in the shop, each element was laid out and assessed to determine which pieces were salvageable and which required replacement. After meticulous documentation, all parts were mapped and translated into CAD files. Having these otherwise inaccessible components in-house provided the unique opportunity to prepare a custom library of details for First Congregational Church in anticipation of future restoration needs and part replacement.

Intact elements were cleaned and prepped for refinishing. Substantial details such as the monolithic Corinthian columns appeared unimpaired from the surface, but experienced wood rot at their core. With the use of consolidants, these items were also saved.  

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Other details were reproduced using templates created on our CNC machine. All new pieces were made of Western Red Cedar, the same wood species as the original elements to ensure historic accuracy and material performance. Replacement parts were then fit in place for sizing and routed with the cove detailing to ensure the tracery appeared seamless. Keeping the site conditions in mind, the final product was delivered in sections for ease of hoisting and installation by Arciform.

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The First Congregational Church restoration marked the final project of our former shop foreman, Eric Voss. The success of this project can be credited to his skilled craftsmanship and attention to detail.  Many thanks go out to him and his multiple years of service on Versatile’s team of talented woodworkers.

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This project was named one of Restore Oregon‘s Most Endangered Places in 2015. You can check out the whole list of Endangered Places here. The 2016 list will be announced at the Restoration Celebration (sponsored by Versatile Wood Products) on November 13th. Get the details and RSVP for that event here.

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