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Mall was Motivation for Preservation of Church

By Brian Morgan

Commercial development and historic preservation typically work at cross purposes. Yet the parishioners of Norfolk's Freemason Baptist Church found motivation to restore their 150-year-old structure in the city's largest-ever commercial endeavor.

Architect John Paul Hanbury, noted for his work in preserving the past, recently spoke with members of the Norfolk Historical Society and Chrysler Museum's Friends of the Historic Houses about his role in restoring the historic structure to its former glory.

The pending construction of MacArthur Mall was the impetus for the church to approach Hanbury. He was eager to take on the project.

"When you realize how much Norfolk has lost you become even more appreciative of what Norfolk has architecturally," Hanbury told the audience.

The number of significant architectural presences in Norfolk has diminished. "Freemason Street Church is, in my mind, unquestionably one of the finest of the very few surviving examples in the city," Hanbury said.

The perpendicular Gothic style church was designed by noted architect Thomas Walker. At the time, Walker also designed the nearby Greek revival structure: the Old Norfolk Academy Building, now home to the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.

The church was an ambitious undertaking for the 80 members of the church when it was commissioned in 1848. Finished two years later, it sported the tallest steeple in Norfolk at the time -- until it blew off in a storm in 1878.

"The congregation knew they had a treasure that they wanted to preserve," Hanbury said. "So they gave us a long list of things they wanted us to consider."

Among the charges was to determine the integrity of the steeple and tower. The spire, constructed of stamped metal, had lost its galvanizing and was badly rusted. The pinnacles were in poor condition, as was the belfry, "the home of all homeless pigeons in Norfolk," Hanbury said.

In addition, the stucco was falling off the structure in many areas, the roof was in poor condition, the windows allowed moisture into the church and there were so many coats of paint that it concealed damage to the woodwork.

During the examination of the structure, the architects uncovered part of the original stucco. They were surprised to find that it had been colored and "struck" to imitate stone. The congreation gradually relented to Hanbury's persistent suggestions and agreed to restore the building to its original stone-look.

That process took months, as workers carefully removed all traces of stucco from the building and re-pointed the brickwork beneath. They applied a breathable stucco that now allows moisture to escape; the old material trapped moisture and was damaging the structure.

The other major challenge, Hanbury said, was to restore the spire. All of the old metal was replaced with lead-coated copper -- "the most durable material I know of."

One pleasant surprise came with the windows. Hanbury originally worried that the windows would have to be replaced. Instead they were able to restore the window frames and reglaze each pane. "Now we don't have to worry about glass falling out of the windows, which used to be an everyday occurrence," he said.

The parishioners initially planned to undertake the restoration three stages, but they found the funds to complete everything at once.

"I think the people of Freemason Church deserve a tremendous vote of confidence for having the courage to invest the funds they did," he said. "This was no small restoration."

Hanbury said he had a dream that the six-foot-long trumpet atop the spire was covered in gold leaf. They located a gilder in Portsmouth (all labor on the project was local) and the gleaming vane now sits proudly atop the building. "For me it says we have architectural treasures in Norfolk," he said. "We value them and we treasure them."


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