Even in a region celebrated for its early colonial churches, old
stands out from the crowd.
No house of worship in English America reaches further back in time than this landmark 17th-century relic. And mixed in with the classical architectural features that link it to every Anglican church in Colonial Virginia are several much rarer and older building elements - including stepped gables and wall buttresses whose roots are indisputably medieval.
Threatened by the passage of time and the unexpected harm from two previous restoration campaigns, however, the structure was badly in need of help when a $500,000 preservation project began in August.
Water damage scarred the brick mullions supporting the great east window, while ugly cracks ran up the old brick walls and the arch supporting the bell tower. Loose nails protruded from the ridge of the tiled roof by several inches.
"You could stand in front of the church, look up and see cracks that went all the way up through the bricks and mortar," says Charlotte Klamer, executive director of Historic
"We were all terrified, but we knew we had to repair and replace the bricks and mortar as far in as you have to go."
'GRAND LANDMARK OF COLONIAL HISTORY'
Traditionally believed to have been started in 1632, the old Newport Parish church was probably completed in the last quarter of the 1600s and is the sole surviving example of Virginia's pioneering first generation of brick churches.
Like its long-gone contemporaries at
and the first Bruton Parish church in Williamsburg, it was built by well-to-do colonists eager to express their growing wealth and sociopolitical prominence.
Abandoned after the Revolution and the dissolution of the Anglican Church in America, however, its 2-foot-thick walls fell into such disrepair that part of the roof and the east end of the church collapsed in a storm during the 1880s.
is a grand landmark of colonial history. But it's been heavily, heavily restored twice - once in the 1890s and again even more extensively in the 1950s - and that's caused the problem they're having today,"
architectural historian Carl Lounsbury says.
"They had good intentions but no real understanding of how these old buildings and their materials work. So they undermined the old fabric by wiping out almost all the old lime mortar joints and replacing them with mortar made from Portland cement."
Stronger, harder and far less permeable than lime mortar, the modern joints didn't move or compress as much as the soft colonial brick, creating conditions that led to widespread cracking. They also plugged up the main escape route for any moisture that wicked in through the porous 1600s masonry, causing water damage inside as well as destructive freezing and lichen blooms on the exterior.
By the time Norfolk engineer Roland McPherson surveyed the building in 2004, this mismatched combination of materials had not only spawned cracks in the tower arch and building walls, but also created a situation that - if left unchecked over the long term - was potentially lethal.
"It was not the proper mortar - and that can be a serious problem," McPherson says, "because it greatly accelerates the deterioration of the old brick."
WORKING TO REVERSE DECADES OF DAMAGE
Financed by a $250,000 grant from the federal Save America's Treasures program - plus a matching gift from the
-Luter Foundation - restoration began in August with a laundry list of tasks designed to halt and repair decades of this persistent moisture damage.
A new copper ridge cap and roof gutters have been combined with a beefed-up drainage system to carry run-off away from the building's walls and foundation, says Jeff Marshall, project director for Norfolk contractor E.T. Gresham. But most of the work is aimed at repairing the most serious cracks, replacing deteriorated bricks and repointing the joints in
Working with a formula based on an analysis of the original mortar, the masonry crew from Snow Jr. & King of Norfolk is producing its mix on site using hydrated lime, local white concrete sand, masonry sand and oyster shells that have been crushed and boiled. They've also customized their mixer, replacing the regular paddles with homemade blades designed to chop through the materials and create a coarser blend.
Simple repointing has been the largest part of the task, with foreman Jeff Johnson and his crew removing the incompatible Portland cement mortar, than replacing it with mortar made from lime. But they've also had to rebuild the failing tower arch and several crumbling sections of wall, reusing old bricks when they could and substituting modern colonial-style examples when they couldn't.
The frequent presence of shaped bricks has posed additional problems, requiring Johnson to take reproduction common brick and re-create more than 200 replacements by hand. But once they've been fitted in place and the mortar struck and jointed with a custom tool, they look a lot more like the hand-cut originals than any 21st-century replica that popped out of a mold.
"It's definitely been a challenge. We've had to do stuff we've never done before," Johnson says.
"But it's nice knowing that - if we do our job right - we're going to add a lot of years to the life of this church."
Go to dailypress.com to see a video and photo gallery of the preservation work.
WANT TO GO?
Church is scheduled to reopen Feb. 1
Where: 14477 Benns Church Blvd.,
When: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 1-4 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $5 adults, children 12 and under free