Central Air

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From hundreds of feet away on a cloudy August morning, Center Church’s steeple was a matte snowy peak tipped with a shimmer of gold. From just a few feet away—and nearly 200 feet off the ground—it was, unexpectedly, the steeple that shone, blindingly white. My eyes narrowed and fluttered, trying to fight the rush of light, but they were also too ravenous to close for longer than a blink. Rising high at the very heart of the city, the steeple is the most iconic element of what may be New Haven’s deepest historical icon, and I didn’t want to miss an inch.

In a sense, Center Church was here even before New Haven was; the city’s Puritan founders formed the congregation in 1639, more than a year before they christened their fledgling Zion “Newhaven.” The literal church building we know today is of course much younger than the congregation, and yet, at 207 years and counting, it’s much older than New Haven was at the time of the Revolution. Its survival has relied on untold repairs, restorations and renovations, which brings us to the reason I was able to climb this mountain: a major renewal and preservation project that has wrapped the church in scaffolding since 2019.

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Planning began years earlier, in 2015, according to Jamie McAdam, the fourth-generation owner of the New Haven-based F. J. Dahill Company, a structural restoration and contracting firm founded in 1883. Dahill, pronounced “day hill,” has been helping maintain the church and its steeple—and countless other local landmarks along the way—for more than a century, McAdam says. “We have pictures here from over a hundred years ago of our family working here… My grandfather used to pose like this”—he strikes the pose—“at the top, just holding on with a hand and one foot.” Underscoring the danger but also the pluckiness of the work back then, he recounts an incident at a different site where his grandfather’s fortunes almost ran out: “He fell 116 feet off a smokestack and through the roof of the building next door, and was hospitalized for seven months.” The roof, he says, “flexed enough that it slowed him down to where he [didn’t] die. He had some permanent wounds from that, but he was a steeplejack to the end.”

You can think of the current Center Church project as an infinitely safer and slower fall; the work is proceeding from top to bottom, in both order and scope. “This is the most extensive renovation of the steeple since 1912,” notes Jaret Lynch, a structural engineer with Shelton-based firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, the project’s other major player. “This is a big intervention—about a once-every-hundred-years fix-up.” Proceeding in layers all the way down, the exterior work started with the tip of the steeple and its shimmering weathervane, whose copper body has been carefully re-leafed in gold and, after several structural fixes and upgrades, once again tracks the direction of the wind.

But that really is just the beginning. Before and while my hosts and I climbed the scaffolding, New Haven architect Jay Bright, who’s worked on the church in the past, served up some fascinating building-specific history, while Lynch and Dahill’s Rich Barabas explained some of the creative challenges they’ve faced in trying to honor that history. For example, when a section of one of the steeple’s tapered columns needed to be replaced, Dahill first had to source an unusually large specimen of the right kind of tree, then find a rare lathe big enough to cut the wood to the perfect size and shape—an exercise more like calculus than geometry because of the tapering. They found the wood in Branford and the lathe, normally used for ship masts, in Mystic Seaport.

When we reached the steeple, it was obvious that this layer was close to completion, with a few odds and ends indicated by notes on blue tape. It was a far cry from the ‘before’ pictures Lynch later showed me, depicting missing chunks of ornate molding; wood damaged by water, including inside the steeple; and paint peeling and flaking like a redhead in Florida. Now, the damaged design elements have been repaired or in some cases rebuilt, using original or historically accurate materials whenever possible; water flow is being managed by a new and extensive system of custom copper underlays; and, of course, everything’s getting some fresh paint, after stripping off about a century’s worth of the old.

Because of past water penetration and other means of decay, structural elements inside the steeple have been replaced and braced, the extent becoming clearer once we’d climbed down the outside of the spire and back up the inside. This too felt like a sacred experience. As Lynch and Bright led me up a series of tricky stairs and hatchways, we passed by the spire’s clock faces (reversed from our point of view) and its beautifully restored windows framing the city in four directions, plus the large patinaed bell in the belfry. It was impossible not to think about the generations of people who had maintained the steeple, since many of them, possibly hundreds, had written their names and the year they were here into the boards and beams.

As Lynch and I entered the final, highest section, the walls were closing in, and there was no visibility at all, forcing Lynch to fire up a flashlight. We continued our ascent until, at last, my shoulders hit different edges of the steeple and, just overhead, Lynch’s torch revealed the base of the mast that holds up the weathervane, with four metal braces splayed like legs and copper grounding wire coiled around. Lynch pointed out a tiny side hatch secured with small latches, where painters of another era “would throw their ropes out so they could climb back up the outside” to give it a fresh coat. As I tried to conjure an image of that, the beam of the flashlight caught the grooves of “Elisha Hotchkiss 1817,” carved into a board using a fine serif font, and also found the writing of someone we recognized: “Rich Barabas 2020,” printed neatly in Sharpie—remnants of the steeple’s first chapter and, for now, the last.

Center Church on the Green
250 Temple St, New Haven (map)
(203) 787-0121 | office@centerchurchonthegreen.org
www.centerchurchonthegreen.org

Written and photographed by Dan Mims. Image 2 features (from left to right) Jaret Lynch, Rich Barabas and Jay Bright.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories.

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