Burnt Hills

Calvary Episcopal’s once-leaky bell tower now watertight in Burnt Hills

Paul Rassmussen, chairman of the bell tower restoration committee, stands inside the new bell tower at Calvary Episcopal Church in Burnt Hills on Thursday. 
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Paul Rassmussen, chairman of the bell tower restoration committee, stands inside the new bell tower at Calvary Episcopal Church in Burnt Hills on Thursday. 

BURNT HILLS — A local church has maintained its status on the National Register of Historic Places while restoring its bell tower with durable building materials church founders likely wish were available back in the 19th century.

The tower atop Calvary Episcopal Church at 85 Lake Hill Road now gleams with a plastic material over an enclosure protected by sheathing that’s used in today’s newly built homes. 

The tower is now watertight and not likely to rot, said Paul Rasmussen, a longtime church member and chairman of its bell tower restoration committee.

The old wood-framed tower leaked for years onto the rear pews of the church, whose first service was on Christmas Eve in 1849.

Buckets were placed to collect water that drenched the back two rows, said the Rev. Gabriel Morrow, church rector, who recalled guests getting soaked during a Christmas Eve service.

The final bill for the restoration was $173,000, about $30,000 more than initially thought, Rasmussen said. But a fundraising drive exceeded expectations, raising three-quarters of the cost, or about $127,000, which he said was a blessing.

The remainder was paid from the church’s reserve funds, Rasmussen said.

The tower has been restored to its original glory, with spires and finials that were removed during a previous restoration, Morrow said.

“The oldest members of the church have no memory of the tower looking the way that it was supposed to,” Morrow said. “And so this is the first generation since the early 20th century that is actually seeing the tower looking the way it did originally, which is really cool.”

Morrow said he’s pleased with using a more modern material that looks like wood and can be painted, yet won’t expand and contract.

It was discovered that the underlying wood rot was worse than originally thought, Rasmussen said. The bell itself, which weighs in excess of 1,000 pounds, had to be lifted to replace the flooring, which was also severely rotted.

Rasmussen resolved earlier this year that a substantial restoration had to be done immediately. They could no longer wait, despite the challenges of taking on a major construction project during the coronavirus pandemic in which construction costs had increased.

“We’re very happy with that and it came out, in my opinion, looking excellent,” Rasmussen said. “In fact, we’ve had remarks from various people in the neighborhood about how nice it looks — people who don’t even go to the church.”

Recently, the Capital Region Builders and Remodelers Association gave an award to Azek Building Products, the company that produced the material for the tower.

The church actually turned down an $11,000 grant from the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Sacred Sites Fund. Rasmussen said church officials thought the grant could be used for construction costs. But the money had to be used for architectural work, and the grant would have covered less than half of a designer’s $23,000 fee.

Accepting the grant would have also delayed the project a year.

“We hemmed and hawed over this, and said, you know, we’ve been working with a contractor [Nally Restoration of Burnt Hills], who has a real interest in this project,” Rasmussen said. 

Nally Restoration had also conducted smaller-scale restoration of the First Presbyterian Church tower in Schenectady, using the same material, Rasmussen said.

The tower was christened on Veterans Day when the Ballston Lake Fire Department shot water onto it.

Morrow said in jest that the church is now positioned for another 170 years.

In reality, the pastor is aware of the need for additional work on the building, whose core was built in 1849. It has another adjoining building that’s about 130 years old.

“We know from the outside, if you walk around the building, that you can look at just the outside structure and particularly the sills down near the ground level on the old part of the building, that those will probably all need the same kind of attention that the tower got,” Morrow said. “Because a lot of those pieces are of the same era.

“And so there have been repairs done over the years, but is it kind of the right time to do a full assessment of the whole building? Yes, it really is. To undertake something the size of the tower every year is difficult for a church our size. But can we chip away around the building, so to speak? That’s kind of what we’re starting to brainstorm about.”

The church has 100 to 110 members, and 60 people were showing up to Sunday services before the pandemic began in March 2020. Now about 40 to 50 are attending on Sundays.

Calvary Episcopal Church received its national historic designation in 2017. It survived a major fire in 1967, after which it was gutted. There are still burn marks on its rafters.

Contact reporter Brian Lee at [email protected] or 518-419-9766.

Categories: Saratoga County

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