Salisbury church seeks angels to save deteriorating steeple

Editor’s note: This article was contributed by Glenn Andres, professor of the history of art and architecture at Middlebury College.
SALISBURY — The Salisbury Congregational Church has learned through a commissioned preservation report that its steeple is in immediate need of structural and sheathing repairs estimated to be in excess of $130,000. The graceful landmark spire has overlooked the Highway Seven valley from the highest point in Salisbury Village since 1838. It has featured in a Vermont Life calendar and been entered onto the National Register of Historic Places. It also is identical to the tower Ammi B. Young designed in 1837 for the Winooski Congregational Church, suggesting that its builder, Asahel Parsons, acquired the design, which he used simultaneously for Salisbury and for the old Middlebury Methodist Church, from the famous architect, who practiced in Burlington between 1830 and 1838. The Winooski tower was destroyed in 1900, the Middlebury church burned in 1891, and other work by Young from this period has also been lost. The Salisbury tower and the portico of the Vermont Statehouse appear to be the only extant buildings in Vermont designed by Young before his removal to Boston and then to Washington, D.C., as architect to the Treasury Department.
Intent on saving their tower, the small congregation has applied for and received a $20,000 matching grant from the state administered through the Division for Historic Preservation, and now are beginning to address the challenge of raising the remainder of the necessary funds. Beyond the customary bake and rummage sales, dinners, raffles, and ice cream socials that have financed ongoing preservation projects on the building over recent years, they will need the assistance of angels.
This is not the first time that Salisbury has faced a steeple crisis. Three times over the past 60 years they have marshaled their energies, and with the help of others have been able to assure the preservation of this landmark.
When the hurricane of 1950 tore the steeple from its tower and sent it crashing through the roof to skewer the floor of the sanctuary, friends of the church from the Lake Dunmore community mounted a benefit concert including famous cellist and summer resident Elsa Hilger to raise money for its repair. (Years later, in her 90s and blind, Ms. Hilger would return to play one of her last public concerts in the Salisbury summer series.)
In the 1970s it was discovered that pigeons invading the belfry had deposited several feet of droppings that impeded the ringing of the bell. Once the mess had been excavated and removed via feed sacks carried down ladders inside the tower, it was apparent that the belfry timbers had rotted. A notice in the paper that the church could use steeple repairs as a Christmas gift brought a surprise angel to the rescue. Retired Connecticut orchardist Alan Farwell, who loved the view of the steeple from his hilltop camp overlooking the village, offered to match any money that could be raised. He subsequently became a summer attendee, and in the congregation found himself a Vermont family.
Leakage in the tower’s sheathing led in the 1990s to the need for additional timber repairs in its lower levels, this time with a state grant for seed money and another angel. Leicester, and former Salisbury, resident Walter Cerf, whose generosity aided many local institutions and landmarks, came forward with a gift to supply the necessary match.
Twenty years later, examination by specialists has revealed that the timber repairs were insufficient and have suffered further from leaks in the sheathing, to the point that it may be necessary to temporarily remove and rebuild the state and local landmark. The task is daunting but, resolved to save the town’s beloved steeple, the church once again seeks angels. Anyone who would care to help in the effort to preserve this spire as part of the Vermont landscape is invited to write to the Salisbury Church (P.O. Box 61, Salisbury, VT 05769).

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