NEWBURYPORT — A major maintenance/preservation project on the 1801 meetinghouse of the First Religious Society was completed in 2016, but took twice as long as expected and cost more than three times the original budget.

It took two years and cost $1.3 million. The original budget, approved by the congregation in May 2014, was $415,000, an amount that was contingent on what workers would find when the scaffolding was in place for a close look from the outside.

It became known as the Steeple Project, because that is where most of the unexpected work was done, and where extensive replacement of the original wooden structure added so much to the cost, requiring the congregation to authorize three budget increases, ranging from $237,000 to $560,000.

Even though the church, which is governed solely by its congregation, like a New England town meeting, has yet to launch a capital campaign, $568,000 has already been raised, largely through two grants from the city’s Community Preservation Act, which has twice approved funds that total $300,000.

In addition to the CPA money, individual donations now total $135,000, including $120,000 from parishioners. When scaffolding still surrounded the steeple and facade in early 2016, the church stretched a banner on the building’s front that read, “With the Generous Support of the Citizens of Newburyport.”

The scaffolding was covered with green debris cloth, giving the steeple a massive look. Debris cloth stops pieces of the building and materials from falling to the sidewalk. A crane extended over the steeple to replace rotten timbers that supported the steeple from the ground up.

As part of the city’s funding, the meetinghouse, the oldest intact church building in Newburyport, is now covered by a historic preservation restriction to ensure the exterior of the Pleasant Street meetinghouse will be preserved in its original state.

The other especially historic church building in Newburyport is the First Presbyterian Church — known as Old South — on Federal Street. Its interior structure dates from 1756; however, its exterior and interior appearance has changed markedly over the years. The original building faced the side street — School Street — but in 1856, the meetinghouse was rebuilt, so it looked much like the Pleasant Street church, including its steeple. In 1949, the steeple was found to be in danger of falling, so it was pulled down and the present dome erected in its place.

The current meetinghouse of the Unitarian Universalist church, at first known simply as the Pleasant Street Church, was built on what was known as the rock lot to replace the congregation’s first building erected in 1725 at the Market Square bullnose. The church was founded in 1722 as the third parish of Newbury, before Newburyport became first its own town in 1764 and then a city in 1851.

The first meetinghouse had been expanded in 1737, but by 1785, it was again found to be too small. In the 1830s, there were some 1,800 members, requiring two Sunday services.

Some highlights

The church is an entirely wooden building, constructed before the Great Fire of 1811 that brought on all the red brick buildings surrounding Market Square and the granite block walls of the 1835 Custom House just down Water Street. The church also survived the nearby mill fire of 1881.

Throughout the steeple project, which included restoration of the meetinghouse’s clear glass windows and stripping and painting the white, clapboard exterior, the project was managed by William “Bill” Heenehan, part-time church business administrator.

In his recent report to the congregation, he wrote, “Only touch-up painting, which can be done with air temps as low as 45 degrees, and installing pigeon netting on the bell tower remain to be done. The project is complete!”

When asked to cite highlights of the project’s troubled history, Heenehan said, “The project started as a major preservation project with plans to repair significant damage to the detailed moldings and other elements of the upper steeple, remove all the paint from the building itself, and restore the windows (42 12-pane over 12-pane windows in the meetinghouse). The need for major restoration work had been identified 25 years previously.

“Scaffolding enabled us to see the real damage to the upper steeple,” he said, “requiring substantially more work than anticipated: Several columns and column bases were badly rotted, all of the ornate column capitals required replacement, and the acorns and urns at both light tower levels required replacement, adding significantly to the project time and cost.”

When work was nearing completion in 2014, Heenehan said workers found two structural problems “that ultimately resulted in replacement of a substantial portion of the structural support of the entire steeple. It was not an exaggeration to say that the steeple was in danger of falling.”

The instability of the steeple was so severe that when a wind storm whipped Boston in early August 2016 and headed north, city building officials and the project’s structural engineer, John O’Connell of Newbury, determined the steeple could be toppled by high winds. That prompted them to evacuate both church buildings and warn people in adjacent buildings to prepare for evacuation.

Fortunately, the fierce winds didn’t reach the Clipper City that day. Emergency structural bracing was installed in the steeple so it could withstand the twisting and turning that wind brings, until permanent repairs could be made.

The spire had been taken down and reinforced with steel beams in 1946 and raised up again in 1949. However, during the current steeple project, rotten wood was replaced with wood, to the delight of local preservation officials and experts.

The 1946-49 steeple project cost just $30,000, but even that sum was more than the congregation, small at that time, could manage by itself.

The steel in the spire came in handy for this project, when it was used to temporarily support the bell — a replacement installed in 1816 — allowing complete removal of the bell deck, the flat roof under the part of the steeple that is open to the weather, and its wooden frame. That work led to the discover of more problems.

“All of the structural work was done using timber-framing methods used when the building was originally built in 1801,” said Heenehan, long-active member of the congregation, which numbers almost 400. “To the extent possible, materials were the same, and prepared in the same way, as would have been done historically.” 

American Steeple and Tower Co. of Salem was the contractor.

Water had been finding its way into the steeple’s massive wooden frame for decades, sapping its strength. This deterioration was hard to spot because these structural timbers are so large — 12-by-12 inches in many cases — and because they often rot from the center.

The church used resistance drilling twice to measure the internal condition of the timbers, sometimes yielding good news, but more often finding still more rotted wood that had to be replaced.

“The complexity of the structural repairs extended the time for completion into summer of 2016, and nearly doubled the cost of the project,” Heenehan said. “The membership approached this with a commitment to preserve the building for many future generations.”

It has been called a 100-year project.

Major decisions, such as those about the steeple project, are made by a congregational meeting in the sanctuary, where everyone who is a church member is entitled to vote. The meetings are led by a moderator elected by the congregation; in this case, it is K.C. Swallow, long-time West Newbury moderator.

All the votes on the funding have been overwhelmingly in favor. Only one time, when the vote was about a related matter, was it close. The debate was lengthy and spirited about using the weather cock — brought from the first meetinghouse — or a new replica at the peak of the spire. The replica was chosen. The valuable original is now, for the first time, in safekeeping.

Since the previous report to the community, Heenehan said, “The structural work was fully completed: Siding of the pediment” — the base of the steeple — “was replaced and was painted, new LED lighting was installed and reinstalled, because of defects in the lighting fixtures.”

He said the center door and threshold were restored, the latter fashioned from timbers removed from the steeple during the structural repairs. 

“We have reserved enough material to do the other thresholds when money permits,” he concluded.

Past projects

The center door is one of three originals that open into the vestibule. In 2003, an additional door was added on the south side to provide more convenient access to the neighboring parish hall and create handicapped accessibility to the vestibule.

This minor change to the exterior was part of three major meetinghouse projects the congregation has undertaken in recent years, including a $1.4 million project in 2003, for which the church still has a small mortgage, that converted the dirt-floor cellar into space for offices, classrooms, meeting rooms and accessible bathrooms, with the lot’s rock still protruding in one corner room. The side entrance to this new space designed by architect Andrew Sidford of Newburyport is on Unicorn Street. It is handicapped-accessible. A chair lift in the vestibule was included to provide access between the building’s two levels.

The other project was the $277,000 restoration in 2012 of the pipe organ. It had been rebuilt before in 1889 and 1957. Installed in 1834, it was made by Joseph Alley, one of Newburyport’s two early organ builders. It replaced the original, smaller organ built in 1794 for the Market Square building.

Now it continues to be heard at Sunday morning services, concerts and the Christmas season candlelight service, which has been filling the meetinghouse that seats 800 since 1925, the congregation’s 200th anniversary.

John Harwood is a longtime member of the First Religious Society and retired from full-time journalism. He can be reached at


FRS steeple project timeline spans five centuries

What follows is a timeline, compiled by John Harwood, relating to the First Religious Society.

1625 — Newbury Plantation settled, First Parish created

1722 — Third Parish created in port section of Newbury

1725 — Third Parish meetinghouse erected in Market Square

1737 — First FRS meetinghouse expanded

1756 — First Presbyterian Church erected facing School St.

1764 — Newburyport becomes separate town, Third Parish becomes First Religious Society

1785 — First FRS meetinghouse found to be too small

1794 — First organ installed in first FRS meetinghouse

1801 — FRS builds new meetinghouse on rock lot

1811 — Great Fire starts near FRS, destroys many wooden buildings

1816 — New FRS bell installed

1831 — FRS membership reaches 1,800

1834 — Joseph Alley organ installed in FRS meetinghouse

1835 — Custom House built

1851 — Newburyport becomes city

1856 — First Presbyterian renovated facing Federal St.

1873 — FRS erected parish hall

1881 — FRS meetinghouse survives nearby mill fire

1889 — FRS organ rebuilt

1925 — Christmas candlelight service begun

1946 — Top of FRS steeple taken down

1949 — Spire, reinforced with steel, raised up again

1949 — First Presbyterian steeple taken down, replaced with dome

1957 — FRS organ rebuilt

1990 — FRS restoration work needed; some repairs made

2003 — FRS dirt-floor cellar finished off — $1.4M

2012 — FRS organ rebuilt – $277K

Steeple Project

May 2014 — $415K Steeple Project voted

2014 — Community Preservation Committee OKs $200K

Summer 2014 — Scaffolding erected

August 2014 — Rotten steeple timbers found

October 2014 — $560K voted

November 2014 — Rotten steeple support timbers found

March 2015 — $237K voted

2015 — Community Preservation Committee OKs $100K

August 2016 — Meetinghouse, parish hall evacuated

September 2015 — $503K voted

Early 2016 — Thank-you banner placed

December 2016 — Grants, donations & pledges total $568K

December 2016 — Steeple Project complete; total cost — $1.3M

Recommended for you