The dome, Gary Knight says, will be what most people notice.
With new copper in place, it’ll gleam like a shiny new penny.
But all around First Baptist Church on Fifth Street, workers have been making refurbishments, from adding a wheelchair ramp to reworking the HVAC system.
“There are a lot of pieces that aren’t glamorous,” said Knight, who is chairman of the building committee at the church. “You’re replacing a boiler, replacing a chiller. But to remain in this building for the long term, those are things you have to do.”
Scaffolding has also gone up around the steeple, and workers will spend the next few months cleaning the masonry, repointing, and replacing cracked terracotta.
The renovation project began last year, when a pair of buildings housing a day-care center, gymnasium and fellowship hall were torn down. Doing away with the structures is expected to save the church about $200,000 annually in maintenance.
The congregation, which was founded in 1871, built its first home at the corner of Church and Second streets in 1876 (worshipers had previously gathered at a courthouse). It outgrew that building and in 1901 put up a new church next to the old one.
The current sanctuary was built in 1924 at a cost of $650,000. The church had recently hired a pastor who agreed to come only on the condition that it construct a new building. The church had been refurbished several times over the years, most recently in 2007.
The roof over the sanctuary dates to the 1960s, Knight said, and the copper sheets on it are arranged in a diamond pattern, giving the dome a quilted appearance up close.
Workers over the spring have been peeling away the copper, putting down a woven synthetic underlayment in its place. On a recent afternoon, crews were lowering the crumpled metal to the ground and stacking it into a trailer. Over the decades, the exposed parts of the sheets had attained a soft green patina, but the undersides had retained their reddish hue.
Steve Hicks, site superintendent for Frank L. Blum Construction, the contractor for the project, said the new roof will have wider panels that will run up and down the dome.
“They’ve had water problems over the past several years,” he said. “The new roof system won’t have nearly as many joints, which will help with that.”
The new panels will turn green eventually as the copper oxidizes. However, the patina is desirable, both for its aesthetic qualities, and because it shields the rest of the metal from corrosion.
Last month a fire broke out at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, destroying the roof on the 800-year-old church. What caused the blaze is not yet known.
Bob Kraemer, co-founder of the Detroit-based Kraemer Design Group, which has worked on a number of historic properties (but is not involved in the First Baptist project), said fire safety is always a concern on any construction site, but especially on older structures.
“You have to be mindful when you’re grinding or doing something that creates sparks,” he said. “If an ember gets inside a wall or attic, and no one knows about, it can just fester. And old wood can be very dry.”
At First Baptist, the dome is of wood construction. But Pastor Emily Hull McGee said crews have been diligent about safety.
“We’ve had subcontractors that said, ‘We don’t want to get on the roof and do welding, because that would endanger the integrity of the space,’” she said. “And we’re really grateful for that. We feel comfortable with the work they’ve been doing, and have a lot of confidence in the folks doing that work.”
Crews will also be repairing some copper at the very top of the steeple. A full-scale cleaning of the tower has started.
McGee said workers took about two months to set up the scaffolding around the steeple.
“The first step really was to get up there and assess the state of things,” she said. “We could see some of it with drones, but there’s no comparison to being up there and touching it.”
Knight said the scaffolding will likely be up through the fall.
“There are pieces of terracotta that we can repair, but about 48 little bricks actually have to be replaced,” he said. “And making new terracotta, it’s a long process. We have to give the specs and dimensions. But the tower will get cleaned, a lot of prep work will be done, and then there will be a period of inactivity before the new pieces come in.”
Along the side of the building is a new ramp. The church did have an elevator, but the ramp will make handicapped access easier. An external boiler has also been added, and inside are several new restrooms.
“This project in many ways is about making sure the physical location where the church gathers is safe and dry and accessible, and serves our needs in a way that makes our ministry here sustainable,” McGee said. “We’re taking care of what we’ve been given. We’re not the ones who laid the cornerstone, but we want to be good stewards of what we inherited.”