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This work can get too close for comfort

Repairing New England church steeples puts Bob Levesque on high--high enough to say hello to God.


HINGHAM, Mass. — Here is the church, here is the steeple.

Wait a minute. What is that steeple doing in the front yard of the Second Parish Church here?

And why, by the way, is it in a million pieces? What is that bell doing sitting off by itself on the lawn, not in the tower to call the faithful to worship?

"Yeah, well, sometimes you get up there," Bob Levesque said, "and you find out the thing's in such bad shape that there's nothing to do but take it apart and start over."

Levesque was shouting down from the roof of the 256-year-old structure, the latest in a 20-year career that has seen him repair more Colonial churches than he can keep count of. There was the Congregational church in Farmington, N.H., with a tall, skinny spire that needed reshingling. There was the Unitarian Universalist church in Boston's Roxbury district, where Levesque came upon a bell made by Paul Revere. There was Boston's Park Street Church, built in 1809 alongside the Boston Common and often in need of tender, loving, architecturally approved care.

Frequently, Levesque has gazed down at Cambridge, Mass., from the 265-foot grandeur of Harvard's Memorial Church, New England's tallest church and another regular client. The oldest on Levesque's list is an Anglican church in Marblehead, Mass., built in 1714. Just before Levesque began working there, he remembered, a local history buff discovered "eight or nine bodies" buried in the basement.

"That happened a lot back then," said Levesque, an affable man with gray hair and a trim build. "All the churches, of course, had dirt floors, and if people died in wintertime when the ground was frozen, they just dug a hole and stuck them in the church basement."

As the head of only half a dozen or so steeplejack companies in New England, Levesque renovated the 165-foot steeple of the 19th century town hall in Gloucester, Mass., north of Boston. Nearby, in Hamilton, his crew helped to convert a church into a private residence. The organ pipes were left intact, forming a two-story wall from the kitchen to the master bedroom.

Stepping into a business started by his father, Levesque, who turns 40 this month, found himself in a line of work that puts him in direct contact with early American history. "This has a whole different feeling than working on some ugly modern skyscraper, bolting concrete," he said.

His colleague, a former shipbuilder named Russ Pike, gazed almost reverentially around his work site and remarked, "To get a look at the past like this, to see all the old craftsmanship--well, I love it. I feel lucky to do this work."

Fortunately, there's plenty of it. "There's so many old churches around here," Levesque said, "and there's always work to be done on them."

For example, the firm's current project is the Second Parish Church here, a comparative parvenu by the standards of a community founded in 1633. Levesque's American Steeple & Tower Co. was hired initially to perform some relatively small repairs on the bell tower. But when he and his crew climbed into the tower just after the Fourth of July, they found the wood hopelessly rotted.

"Another winter and it would have fallen right over," Levesque informed the Unitarian Universalist parish.

Levesque and Pike, 36, took the dome, tower and spire apart, piece by piece. They shored up the bell deck, using the traditional mortise-and-tenon technique to replace the rotted timber. Big, solid beams, 10 inches deep, interlock with one another. Wooden cribbing sits on top. The project will cost about $100,000.

"There's really no mystery to it," said Richard Bergmann, a Connecticut architect who designs churches and who chairs the religious art and architecture committee for the American Institute of Architects. "One thing you find is that from lack of maintenance, which churches never have enough money for, things deteriorate. But if someone has the patience, and the understanding of the architecture, it's not all that complicated."

But for this region in particular, keeping up historical appearances is important, Bergmann said. "We visualize New England with church steeples sticking up through the trees," he said. "If we lose that, we lose an awful lot."

On the other hand, some of the historical memory is not entirely accurate. Unlike the quaint, white-spired buildings that peer through autumn leaves on postcards from Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire, this country's earliest houses of religion--of which few remain--were plain, functional meeting houses. Spires and steeples were too frivolous, too expensive and entirely too reminiscent of the country these first settlers abandoned.

But "even though we get mad at the English and have wars with them, we always revert back to following the English pattern," Bergmann said, at least in terms of constructing centers for prayer. As the Colonies matured, American architects ventured to England in the early 18th century and saw the splendid churches of Christopher Wren. Down went the proscription on ostentation, up went the spires and steeples--symbolic, presumably, of a direct connection to heaven.

For Levesque and his co-workers, that link can be too close for comfort.

"While you're up there, say hello to God," ministers often quip to the steeplejack. And does he?

"Always," Levesque replied.

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