The last time anyone scaled the 90-foot bell tower of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Winston-Salem was nearly a century ago when it was built.
And they surely weren’t doing it with iPads in hand, like rappellers did Tuesday at the property on Summit Street.
“While rappelling, they’re identifying types of damage and how severe and marking it on the tablet,” local architect Joe Oppermann said. “We’re giving this building a physical, to use a medical analogy. We’re looking carefully at the masonry and the mortar joints to see how it’s all holding up.”
Oppermann’s firm prepared digital drawings of the building’s structure, based on the original blueprints, so that experts could use the iPads to map places in the stone that were problematic.
The project — spurred by evidence of water damage in the church — was an effort to evaluate any problems with the 26,000-square foot building that was completed in 1928.
“We’ll look at the patterns of deterioration and find out what’s causing it, whether that’s a broken seam in a gutter, a flashing that’s loose or the roofing material aging out,” Oppermann said. “Then we’ll tie it all together.”
Two rope access technicians spent Tuesday rappelling down the four sides of the church’s landmark tower and other exterior walls, documenting their observations as they went.
Other experts from around the country examined the composition of the stone and tested it with chemicals to figure out how best to treat the stone without damaging it, said Mark Rabinowitz, principal conservator of the project.
“The (rappelling) team is identifying all the conditions at the macro-level, and then we’re looking at the micro-level,” Rabinowitz said. “We’ll take some samples back to the lab, so we can analyze the materials, combine them with findings in the field and come up with a plan.”
At 90 years this year, the church has stood the test of time.
“It’s in excellent condition, but every building requires some once-in-a-generation maintenance,” Rabinowitz said.
The building, designed by Ralph Adams Cram, utilizes two kinds of stone: grey granite from Massachusetts and cream-colored sandstone from Ohio, Oppermann said.
That led experts to discover two different types of mortar were used to more closely match the stone.
“The church is spectacular. Its gothic-revival, copied after medieval English churches. There’s no question Cram was a master,” Oppermann said. “That said, it’s 90 years old and all man-made structures need periodic maintenance, so that’s what we’re looking at.”
Throughout the week, technicians will also send water coursing down the rooftop to check for leaks and use laser technology to test cleaning methods for the multi-story building.
The weeklong evaluation of the building’s exterior by experts is the initial phase of the preservation project.
It will be followed by reports from the two companies the church contracted with — which are based out of New York and Washington, D.C. — with recommendations on how to proceed with repair, cleaning and preservation of the structure
That will give the church a clear picture at what needs to be done next to preserve the building and eventually give a contractor a map on how to execute the updates that need to be made.
“Our church is a treasure previous generations built and have preserved for us,” said Allan Burrows, leader of the church’s 12-member elected governing body, the Vestry. “Our Vestry unanimously agrees we need the thorough analysis and recommendations these experts are working on to guide us now that it’s our turn to preserve and maintain our historic building for the next generation.”