Metro

Thomas Farragher

Park Street Church’s steeple is steeped in history

Bob Levesque with American Steeple & Tower Company of Salem will lead the restoration of Park Street’s historic steeple.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Bob Levesque with American Steeple & Tower Company of Salem will lead the restoration of Park Street’s historic steeple.

In a city rich with history, this soaring steeple still stands apart, reaching heavenward as it has now for more than 200 years — high above worshipers who have bowed in prayer through calamitous warfare, presidential assassinations, economic collapse, and cowardly acts of terror.

If you look inside Park Street Church’s glorious steeple, you will find evidence of that history, initials of men and women — workers and visitors alike — that date nearly to its dedication in 1810.

“Don’t forget Pearl Harbor,’’ someone has carved into the eastern white pine superstructure of what once was, church historians note, the tallest building in the United States.

Advertisement

But if you look at that steeple from the scaffolding that now rises around it, you will find something less inspiring: Peeling paint. Rotten wooden columns. Glass panes whose critical glazing has chipped and fallen dangerously away.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“We are not part of a large diocese,’’ Richard Elliott, the church’s facilities manager, told me as we stood high above pedestrians on a bright morning this week. “We’re a congregation. If the steeple needs painting, we are passing the plate.’’

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
If you look inside Park Street Church’s steeple, you will find initials of men and women — workers and visitors alike — that date nearly to its dedication in 1810.

And so the plate is being passed at the corner of Park and Tremont streets as it has for causes momentous and mundane since the dawn of James Madison’s presidency.

It’s going to cost upward of $600,000 to restore the crowning splendor of architect Peter Banner’s creation on Park Street. Half of that has been raised. Work is underway to find the rest of it.

And, when you look around, history fairly shouts its demand for results.

Advertisement

Under a late-summer sun, the view from the top of the steeple is breathtaking. Traffic hums along on Tremont Street. Boats bob in the near distance on the Charles River. Beyond the Citgo sign in Kenmore Square, the horizon stretches to verdant hills.

The history of this place is no less inspiring.

During the War of 1812, gunpowder was stored in its basement. Abolitionist Edward Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, was pastor here in 1826. And, three years later, William Lloyd Garrison delivered his first major speech condemning slavery. Eight of the 80 church members who fought for the North in the Civil War did not return and are memorialized behind the church’s pulpit.

When the Great Boston Fire of 1872 swept through the city, killing 13 and destroying 776 buildings, the church was converted temporarily into an infirmary.

“It doesn’t seem as remarkable to think about now because it’s dwarfed by the Millennium and other towers all around us,’’ Elliott said. “But you can imagine what this must have looked like when you had clam flats and people grazing their cattle in Boston Common.

Advertisement

“When Peter Banner laid out the church, he laid it out intentionally so that the Granary Burial Ground would be outside one bank of windows and then Boston Common would be outside the other bank of windows. The idea was that you’re sitting in a place between the life you’re living now and the eternal life.’’

Boston Globe Archive
Park Street Church and Tremont Street in 1885.

Bob Levesque loves that sweep of history. “Everything about this church is cool,’’ he told me after we had climbed 158 steps — some of them more aptly described as rungs — to the top.

Levesque is a history buff. He’s also a steeplejack who runs American Steeple & Tower Company of Salem and has been climbing steeples all over New England for 40 years.

And now, in upcoming weeks that will stretch well into October, his job is to restore the luster of Park Street’s historic steeple.

To get there, he has climbed past the old clock’s original gears, replaced in the 1950s. The tower’s old bell is also still here, now dusty and idle. And while — when manually struck — it still rings true, the Westminster chimes that sing out on the hour and half-hour are electronic, amplified by large speakers hidden inside.

“I think every single thing that’s built here represents creativity and ingenuity, and just the knowledge of how things are built,’’ Elliott said, pointing to the web of sturdy wooden beams overhead.

“Oxen and pulleys — that’s how they got these timbers up here,’’ Levesque added. “They didn’t have hydraulic cranes. . . . This was all hand-done.’’

The steeplejack marveled at the enormous central “king post’’ that forms the spine and has held it steady now for 207 years.

“It’s kind of a sway bar for the whole structure,’’ Levesque said, noting it was tested mightily by Hurricane Carol’s 100-mile-per-hour winds in 1954, which toppled the steeple of the Old North Church in the North End.

Bob Levesque (left) and Glenn Blake worked to paint the steeple in 1987.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File
Bob Levesque (left) and Glenn Blake worked to paint the steeple in 1987.

He said members of his crew are already jostling one another for the right to work on Park Street, a chance to grab a small piece of personal history.

“It’s mostly a painting project,’’ he said. “But there’s a rotten column on this side. The windows are in pretty tough shape. I’ll be doing some of the work, but I won’t be here painting. I haven’t swung a brush in a while. There are plenty of guys who will do this.’’

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
The tower has eight large oval windows.

As he spoke, Levesque removed one of the tower’s eight large oval windows, which isn’t a window at all but an access hatch — a solid piece of wood painted black and etched in white to mimic the hub-and-spoke design of its neighbors.

If you can detect the difference from down on the street, sign up to be an Air Force fighter pilot because your vision is sharper than mine.

When the church’s first major restoration project in 40 years is complete, all 36 of the steeple’s lights will be replaced with new LED fixtures, which will bring brilliance and add an electrical anomaly to a place that opened 69 years before Edison invented the lightbulb.

But the essence of the place will remain.

The American novelist Henry James once called it “the most interesting mass of bricks and mortar in America.’’

Standing in the church steeple, it seemed apt to invoke — as Elliott did — John Winthrop’s admonition to future Massachusetts Bay colonists that their new world would be “as a city on a hill.’’

Soon, members of Levesque’s crew will attach themselves to cables and ropes outside the steeple, and get to work 217 feet in the air.

If they peek inside, they’ll see the simple and aged initials of those who climbed here when cattle still grazed on the Common. Next to some of those initials, carved into the old wood, is this: “Proverbs 3: 5, 6.” It directs those who have dared to climb among the hand-hewn rafters to this biblical passage:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,

And lean not on your own understanding;

In all your ways acknowledge Him,

And He shall direct your paths.

It’s a lesson that’s been preached from this church’s pulpit for generations and, as work begins to preserve this special place, it’s one worth learning again.

The repair work will stretch into October.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
The repair work will stretch into October.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FarragherTom.