By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — For two centuries, worshippers have climbed the stone steps at the southern, main entrance of the Congregational Church of Middlebury to attend services and meetings in one of the town’s most majestic and prominent buildings.
Worshippers are still climbing those steps today, albeit more gingerly. Some tough winters of aggressive freezes and thaws have conspired to erode the stone steps and the mortar that has held them together.
As a result, church leaders have cordoned off the most damaged section of the steps as they research a temporary fix. That will buy the church enough time to plan, and raise money for, replacement of the steps to ensure safe access to future generations of parishioners.
“We’re working to see what is the most economical, temporary thing we can do,” said Ron Rucker, chairman of the church’s board of trustees.
“We need to end up with something that water is not going to go into.”
Water — and salt — have been enemies to the Congregational Church’s steps through the years. Rucker noted the current steps were probably installed during the 1880s or 1890s when the church went through an architectural “Victorianization.”
While the building has admirably weathered Vermont winters, the steps haven’t. Rucker noted the steps are fashioned from two types of stone — a sturdy “Panton stone,” and a less durable variety referred to as “pudding stone.” Church officials during the 1950s covered the steps with a thin layer of slate so that worshipers would have a smooth surface on which to walk.
Alas, years of rain, salt applications and fluctuating temperatures have permeated the slate surface and eaten away at the stone and mortar.
“A few years ago, (the stairs) started buckling all over the place,” Rucker said. “It didn’t seem safe to have anybody on them.”
Access via the main steps is now confined to a small section that remains in decent shape. But church officials know it may not last for long, so they are exploring a temporary solution that may include stripping off the slate and putting down a smooth concrete surface. But officials realize that ultimately, the steps will have to be replaced.
“We’re exploring a complete re-design and rebuild,” Rucker said. “We are going to have to rebuild from the ground up.”
Fortunately, the building foundation appears to be in solid shape, according to church facilities Manager Mal Chase.
Church leaders anticipate having to raise some significant dollars for the rebuild. They are working with Middlebury-based Mill Bridge Construction and Tom Vanacore & Co. of Bridport to determine what such a job will entail.
“It’s going to take a great deal of investigating to see what we can do,” Rucker said.
And the town will have a major say in whatever project the church pursues. The building is a prominent downtown landmark, its steeple featured in Middlebury’s municipal logo. Church officials pledged to ensure any project respects the architectural integrity of the church building itself.
“We are desirous not only to ensure access for our members, but to keep it picturesque,” said church Moderator Russ Carpenter.
“We will be looking for funds from the community,” Carpenter added. “Very clearly, the ownership of the exterior of the church is part of the Middlebury community.”