Story by Linda Taylor
Visitors and residents alike have stopped to stare at the scaffolding surrounding the Methodist Church’s steeple since February. Extending 90 feet above ground, it was put in place to re-clad the steeple after the hail storm in June of 2016 that decimated most of Middleburg’s roofs. However, after only a few days’ work, the roofers were shocked to realize that the spire on the steeple was moving during the repairs. This realization prompted a careful inspection from both outside and inside the structure, the latter a challenging undertaking given the small spaces and precarious climbing inside a structure 160 years old.
The inspection found that over the years, unknown leaks had rotted the main structural timbers at two locations, the base of the spire and the base of the steeple where it joins the church, so that nonstructural elements were holding up the steeple. The presence of the scaffolding allowed the identification of the problem, since the leaks were inaccessible to standard inspections. Clearly, major repairs needed to be made by a highly skilled team that could carefully follow plans from structural engineers. Given the age of the building and the construction methodologies of the pre-Civil War era, this would be a challenge and an expensive one.
The church was fortunate that a member, Ryan Michels of Loudoun Construction, is a building contractor and could mastermind the job. Ryan first had to find an engineering firm capable of drawing up a repair design and able to get right to work. The question was raised why not just lop off the steeple as owners of many other historical churches have done under similar circumstances due to the expense and the dangerous work? However, this was never seriously considered, since not only would there still be considerable expense, but more importantly this steeple is truly a cherished Middleburg landmark in an antebellum church loaded with history and right in the center of town.
With structural plans in hand, the necessary permits were obtained and bids solicited from six structural framers who were believed to have the expertise and experience required for such a technically difficult job. Three of the framers declined to bid. The subsequent selection was not based on cost alone, as Ryan contacted numerous references for each bidder and carefully researched their experience in similar, difficult jobs.
The work had to proceed meticulously and methodically, and involved much measuring and re-measuring of conditions within the steeple that could not have been known until work commenced. The first stage of repair consisted of shoring up the steeple internally with ten 500-pound steel columns and 46 wood framing beam members. It took eight men to carry each steel beam since the tight space in the steeple did not allow use of a crane to drop them in from above. Much of the work has been done during very high temperatures. Every day the work consisted partly of composing detailed specifications for fabrication of structural columns and brackets, depending on what was found and measured as the work progressed.
The majority of the shoring work is complete, and Ryan has breathed a sigh of relief that this most challenging part of the project has gone without a hitch. Replacing the rotten sections will shortly be possible, after which the re-cladding of the roof can proceed. A new spire will be built on the ground and raised to its lofty position by a crane. Most of the shoring material will then be removed, including all ten steel columns that will be hauled off as scrap metal. The church should be back to its finished condition by the end of September.
The Church has been very grateful for the support and forbearance of the community during this project. Special thanks go to Middleburg Millwork for supplying and storing materials to minimize use of parking spaces around the Church. JB Custom Welding of South Riding has worked through the night multiple times to produce materials for which the specifications were measured during one day’s work and which were needed for the next day’s work. The team from the shoring contractor, Gerald C. Staley Builders, has performed prodigious tasks in extreme conditions surprisingly with smiles on their faces. Staley’s knowledge and experience have been instrumental in the success of the project.
The remaining challenge for the Methodist Church will be to pay for the repair. Less than half of the estimated $275,000 cost is covered by the insurance payment for hail damage. A fundraising campaign is getting underway, beginning with community spaghetti dinners at the Church on the second Wednesday of each month (August 9th is the first dinner and the cost is $15/person.) Those who wish to donate to the campaign are encouraged to send a contribution to the Church for the steeple fund at PO Box 284. The Church has faith that community members who value this iconic part of Middleburg’s history and beauty will respond generously to help with the need. ML