White steepled churches mark Vermont’s rural village centers like exclamation points, standing sound, proud and aspirational.
Among the finest is the Salisbury’s Congregational Church. Its distinctive tower built after a design by Ammi B. Young, has been a landmark in the Otter Valley and a community focus since 1838.
Its bell has celebrated anniversaries of nation and state, and called the village to candlelit Christmas Eve services. Its Ice Cream Social has become the town’s de facto Independence Day celebration, and its 38 years of admission-free summer performances have filled the pews for chamber, jazz, cabaret, and folk music, along with locally sponsored historical and environmental programs. This outreach has done much to assure that the tiny congregation of 25 members has been able over the years to turn to community and friends in the sustained effort to conserve this Vermont treasure.
It was no surprise then that a 2011 assessment found the building basically sound. But a disastrous rainstorm in 2013 and a subsequent closer look at the tower brought to light more extensive deterioration: the frame had suffered from recurrent water damage to the point that the steeple structure needed major rebuilding or removal.
The congregation undertook the daunting process of initially raising $130,000, far beyond the capabilities of the bake and rummage sales, dinners, raffles, and socials that to date had been financing building preservation. They sold the former parsonage that had been used as a marginal rental property and pursued local grants and gifts.
Following the restoration of the clock and belfry structure using traditional timber framing methods, workers from Watershed Construction began scraping the upper part of the steeple when things began to wobble: it was then discovered that invisible leakage from the weathervane had rotted the spire as well.
The painting put on hold, the spire was lifted off the building, and braced with scaffolding. It was systematically dismantled and reconstructed, timber for timber, identically to the original. Re-sheathed, it was then raised back atop the building, carefully reinserted into the framing of the lower tower, and repainted. Additional work included sill, clapboard, and shutter repairs, repainting the body of the church, restoring the water damaged ceiling, and repainting the sanctuary.
Thanks to the heroic efforts of congregation, friends, exceptional preservation craftspeople, and an investment approaching $250,000, Salisbury’s historic principal public venue — and one of Vermont’s white-steepled icons — stands sound, proud, and sustainable.
Preservation Award to Salisbury Congregational Church, Salisbury, VT