Restoring historic churches
Contractor Charlie Allen has expanded his old-home renovation business to work on three houses of worship in Cambridge.
I was a good student activist at Harvard, but then I HAD TO MAKE A LIVING. I had an on-again off-again thing with remodeling through the ’70s. And in about 1978, I said this is good, this is what I’ll do, and that’s what I’ve done. Trying to answer those seemingly competing interests — “I love my old house and want to retain ITS AUTHENTICITY or its charm or its style, but I need to change it” — that still gets me up in the morning.
I think it was 10 years ago that I prepared the organ chamber for a new organ at Christ Church Cambridge [built in 1761], and that’s when my work moved FROM HOUSES TO INCLUDE HOUSES OF WORSHIP. Two years ago we did phase one of the church exterior and last year phase two of the exterior. Then we went to St. James’s Episcopal Church in Cambridge [built in 1888] and then First Church Cambridge [built in 1872].
The challenge is very, very similar to old houses — THEY’RE JUST BIGGER OLD HOUSES. They’ve got slate-covered roofs, they’ve got wood trim upon wood trim, they’ve got horsehair plaster, they’ve got old glass, old double-hung windows. They require the same tools, epoxies, and preparation practices that an old house does.
It was refreshing for me to reacquaint myself with the fact that these churches take THEIR JOB OF STEWARDSHIP, OF LEGACY, really seriously. And in the case of Christ Church, it was my church. St. James’s Church has a wonderful little children’s choir, and my daughter sings in it, so it was particularly meaningful to help take a limited amount of money and spread it over the exterior to its best benefit. It’s REALLY HEART-AND-SOUL STUFF for me. — As told to Joel Brown
Interview has been edited and condensed.