By Linda Prescott
Christ Episcopal Church on State Street stands as one of the many architectural gems in the heart of downtown Montpelier, just across the street from the old brick courthouse and a short stroll to our state’s magnificent capitol building. Its imposing Barre and Berlin granite facade with the beautiful rose window and impressive crenelated bell tower is one of the first sights greeting visitors as they enter the downtown area. Many of us who live and work in the city appreciate its aesthetic presence as an historic downtown fixture, where the courtyard offers a place to eat lunch, visit with friends, listen to the popular Brown Bag summer concert series, or simply sit for a silent moment of contemplation.
This year, the church is celebrating the 150th anniversary of this iconic Gothic revival-style building. However, a century-and-a-half-old building presents challenges along with its charms. In the recent past, the Christ Church congregation has undertaken improvement projects, including a kitchen upgrade to support our food ministry, re-beautification of the courtyard for concerts and public use, and a 2016 overhaul of the sanctuary.
Now, the time has come to undertake a major preservation project on an unprecedented order of magnitude. Decades of Vermont’s harsh weather have exerted a heavy toll on the aging building, and we can no longer defer repairs. The buckling walls, eroding masonry, and other major structural problems threaten the long-term integrity of the building and must be repaired without delay before the building becomes uninhabitable. Many of the renovations will be behind-the-scenes and not immediately visible, but the rose window and bell tower seen by pedestrians on State Street will be stabilized and preserved as part of the project. The installation of an elevator will be included in the project to provide handicap access to the sanctuary.
We want to inform the community about what is in the works to save one of its historically valuable downtown buildings. In June, the church launched a capital campaign, “Hearts on Fire: Forging the Future of Christ Episcopal Church.” Acting upon the recommendation of an engineering feasibility study and consultations with masonry experts, we set the goal for the campaign at $700,000, which will address the most immediate structural needs.
We are happy to report that nearly $600,000 has been raised in gifts from our parishioners alone. In the hopes that the remaining $100,000 can be raised to begin the project as soon as possible, we are now embarking upon the community phase of the campaign by contacting community leaders and citizens who are committed to preserving the distinctive character of Montpelier, whether it be from a cultural, historic, or business perspective.
Christ Church is a place of worship, open to any who seek a peaceful sanctuary. Yet we view our work outside the church walls as essential to our spiritual mission. Our church building is the foundation for our community outreach work, from the weekly soup kitchen (in coordination with other local churches) and food shelf, to the free summer concerts in the courtyard and organ and other public concerts year-round in the sanctuary. The church makes its space available as a community gathering place as well. All these activities depend upon the existence of a church building that is structurally sound and safe for use.
There has understandably been some public confusion about the relationship between the Christ Church historic preservation project and the prospect of constructing affordable housing on the church property.
From a financial perspective, these projects are unrelated. The original stone sanctuary fronting State Street is the part of the church slated for immediate renovations in our capital campaign. The more recently built structure—the one with the cinderblock wall overlooking the farmers’ market, which houses our kitchen, meeting rooms, and offices—together with the rear parking lot, constitute the area that would be reconfigured to accommodate the proposed affordable housing project.
The city has identified the need for 150 affordable housing units in the next several years. In response to that need, the church is working in tandem with the city, Downstreet Housing and Community Development (the former Central Vermont Community Land Trust), and local architects to provide this type of housing so severely needed by many families and individuals in the area. This project is being conducted in conjunction with other affordable housing projects either underway or recently completed around the city.
Downtown Montpelier is on the edge of change as a myriad of new building projects are in the offing, especially in the vicinity of the church. Done well and thoughtfully, change has the potential to contribute to the prosperity of our community. Yet the prospect of new development underlines the vital need to preserve the grand old buildings that grace our city streets. After all, down through the years, our rich architectural heritage has invariably contributed to the community’s prosperity. It has served to preserve the small town character of our state’s tiny and unique capital city, attracting visitors and making it a fulfilling place to live and work. May it continue to do so.
Linda Prescott is a member of Christ Episcopal Church