Fire takes Old Brick Church off-line

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The Old Brick Church will be closed to all public functions through at least the summer due to a fire Saturday that caused extensive damage.

All scheduled events and meetings, including about 10 weddings, have been cancelled for the rest of 2007, said Old Brick Church Trustee Carol West, who handles the building’s schedule. The basement is the meeting place of the town band, several neighborhood associations, and a range of other community groups.

Williston Public Works Director Neil Boyden, whose department is responsible for the maintenance of the town-owned church, said he hopes the building interior can be open again by the time school starts.

“I don’t know if I’m being optimistic on that or not, until we really get a full assessment,” Boyden said. “We want to get the building back in service as soon as possible.”

Lightning struck the church in the heart of Williston village Saturday around 5:15 p.m., starting a fire that engulfed the cupola.

Fire Chief Ken Morton was en route to a mutual aid call in South Burlington when he saw the fire, enabling him to get a fire engine to the church quickly, he said. About 40 fire personnel responded from Williston, Essex Junction, Essex Town and Richmond, extinguishing the blaze in about 8 minutes. Hinesburg and Winooski departments were on standby for other calls.

The cupola was totally destroyed. Portions of the slate roof were damaged and sheet rock ceilings near the front of the building suffered extensive water damage, according to a report Town Manager Rick McGuire issued to the Selectboard on Monday night. Whether the electrical system was affected, and whether the roof can support a new cupola is unknown until a thorough assessment of the building can be done, the report says.

Town of Williston records, Williston Historical Society supplies, and the Williston Town Band’s music all were unharmed.

The unstable remains of the cupola were removed Sunday, as was the roughly 1,200-pound bell. Boyden hasn’t decided where the bell will be stored, though he said it may go to a highway garage.

“It is very tender,” Boyden said, referring to the bell. “It looks almost like it got a direct hit from the lightning. It ripped it from its cast frame from the top where it hangs.”

Construction of a cover to protect the interior of the church from further water damage was completed Tuesday afternoon, as were repairs to the slate roof. Clean up tasks, including removing water-soaked debris from inside the building, will cost roughly $25,000, according to McGuire’s report.

Insurance through the Vermont League of Cities and Towns is expected to cover most of the clean up and restoration work. The estimated cost of restoration is unknown, Boyden said. The priority will be reconstruction of the interior of the building, Boyden said, so that the building can be rented out again; after that, the bell tower restoration work takes priority. Boyden said he expects the Preservation Trust of Vermont will provide technical expertise with contractors.

The Old Brick Church, also known as the Congregational Church, was constructed in 1832. Congregationalists paid $150 for the land, and paid between $2,300 and $2,800 for the construction, according to Williston Historical Society records. Pews were sold at a public auction in 1833 to help pay for the construction.

The building was renovated in 1860, and was largely abandoned in 1899 when, uniting with the Methodists, church services moved to the Federated Church. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that a Federated Church youth group obtained permission to clean and restore the church. Ownership was transferred to the Town of Williston in 1965. Eight years later, the building was the first Williston location to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Town funds were used to renovate the cellar for community use, and historic site monies funded restoration of the exterior and the sanctuary, according to the 2006 Old Brick Church Trustees annual report. A grant from the Eva Gebhart-Gourgaux Foundation enabled the steeple to be restored, the report says.

Williston was not the only town to suffer a church lightning strike on Saturday. The 125-foot steeple of St. John the Baptist Church in Allenstown, N.H. also was struck by lightning that afternoon, but no fire ensued, according to the Associated Press. The National Lightning Safety Institute Web site indicates that lightning is responsible for 30 percent of church fires.

In Williston, traffic signals are the only Williston town-owned structures to be hit by lightning in Boyden’s memory, he said, adding that the lightning protection purchased for those weren’t worth the money. (Lightning still gets to the controller.)

Though professionals have mixed thoughts on the value of lightning protection, Boyden said the town will look into adding lightning protection to town-owned buildings, none of which currently have that protection. The cupola had a copper roof, but no lightning rod.

“(The church) stood there for 175 years,” Boyden said, “and hadn’t gotten hit.”