The front of one of Charlton’s most historic buildings will be wrapped in a cocoon of scaffolding for the next few weeks.
The small Charlton Freehold Presbyterian Church has taken on a big project — restoring the 160-year-old bell tower, the church’s most dominant feature and a landmark site for the surrounding community.
A contractor working the equivalent of five stories above the ground is replacing rotting timbers and putting a new roof on the Saratoga County church in an effort to preserve the landmark for another century.
The work is being done with techniques that keep the white columns and ornamental features looking historically authentic, even if they’re being replaced.
“It’s not like it’s falling down and rotting, but we’re bringing it back to snuff,” said Jim Hall, a member of
the church’s bell tower restoration committee.
The $118,000 project was designed by a nationally recognized historic preservation architect, and got the kick to get it started this summer when the New York Landmarks Conservancy awarded two grants totalling $28,000.
The conservancy described the church as “a fine example of Greek Revival architecture with additional Neo-Gothic elements.”
Contractor Duncan & Cahill of Troy started work in late September, stripping away rotting wood and removing the bell tower roof. The goal is to finish work by mid-November.
The church’s fundraising to pay for the work, meanwhile, continues. Church officials have more than matched the grant, but are still trying to raise about $40,000 from the community.
“The community has been wonderful to us,” Hall said. “This isn’t just a church thing, it’s a community thing.”
Charlton Freehold is still a vital part of the community, with its 1874 bell pealing every Sunday morning. Made in Watervliet, the historic bell is inscribed: “Charlton Presbyterian Church. God Bless Our Church.”
One reason for the preservation effort is that church bell towers like the one towering 60 feet above Charlton Road are becoming rare.
Some have been torn down or stripped of decorative touches, and others have succumbed to fire over the decades since the mid-1800s, when they were a common feature of houses of worship.
Just five miles up the road, the Ballston Center Presbyterian Church had its smaller bell tower seriously damaged by a lightning-sparked fire on Sept. 11. That fire came 20 years after a different fire destroyed the sanctuary, but left the bell tower intact.
“Many such towers have been lost over time, but at Charlton the crowning glory of the church remains almost wholly intact after 160 years of exposure to the elements,” according to a report by John G. Waite of Albany, a historic restoration architect who has worked on such high-profile projects as George Washington’s home at Mt. Vernon, the Baltimore Cathedral and New York City’s Tweed courthouse.
Charlton Freehold Presbyterian is located in the heart of the Charlton hamlet, whose historical district was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976 because of its collection of early homes.
The church congregation dates from about 1786, a decade or so after the area was settled by Scottish and Scot-Irish who moved from the community of Freehold, N.J.
“Before that, the Freeholders met in people’s homes,” said Hall, who is the unofficial church historian.
The present church, built in 1852-53, is the third church building, but it is on the same lot as the original church. Some of the beams inside the church are from its 1801 predecessor, which was torn down.
Working above the roof line, Duncan & Cahill workers have replaced rotting wood with hard black locust cut from the nearby LaRue farm, where the LaRue family settled around the same time the church was founded. The locust will be used for new decorative balustrades and finials at the corners of the tower.
Those pieces are being machined by Will LaRue, a direct descendent who has a woodworking business.
The old roof, which was painted steel and was leaking, will be replaced with a new copper roof.
A special long-lasting paint is also being used.
“With a new copper roof and three coats of paint, we hopefully don’t have to worry about it again for a long time,” Hall said during a tour of the work on Monday.