New Heights: Restoring Philadelphia's Historic Christ Church
A National Trust grant aided the restoration of a Colonial-era steeple
Got your steeple climbing shoes on?” asks the Rev. Tim Safford, rector of Philadelphia’s Christ Church.
I glance down at my dressy brown wingtips, not exactly what I’d call appropriate footwear. “Um, I guess I’ll be OK,” I say.
This morning, Safford is leading me on a tour inside the Episcopal church’s historic brick tower and wooden steeple, which are undergoing a multimillion-dollar restoration. The exterior of the nearly 198-foot-tall structure is completely obscured by scaffolding, as the buzzing of saws and slap of hammers fill the air.
For more than 50 years, Christ Church’s steeple made it the tallest building in the country, looming even higher than the former Pennsylvania State House, aka Independence Hall, a couple blocks away. Built between 1727 and 1744, its earliest congregants read like a Who’s Who of America’s original aristocracy: George Washington worshipped here. So did John Adams, Betsy Ross, and Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin himself organized a lottery to fund the construction of the steeple, completed in 1754.
And while the exterior of that steeple is receiving a much-needed paint job and masonry repairs, it’s the work going on inside that will have the most impact on preserving this building for future generations.
In the early 1980s, a structural engineer first noticed that the church’s steeple had a bit of a list. “To the north and the east,” Safford tells me. “Toward Trenton.” Laser scans of the steeple taken in 2015 revealed it was in fact exactly 2 feet out of plumb at its spire. Although it was not in immediate danger of toppling over, engineers from the Philadelphia firm of Keast & Hood recommended that the steeple be stabilized so its lean wouldn’t get worse.
“The engineers informed us there was a risk that the steeple would not survive a hurricane with winds of 85 miles per hour,” says Safford. “Famously, what we in Philadelphia refer to as America’s second-most important spire—the one belonging to Old North Church in Boston—was blown off by a storm in 1804 and again in the 1950s. They had to totally rebuild it. We like that we still have a surviving wooden spire from the Colonial era.”
Safford begins our tour by leading me through the gift shop and up a flight of wooden stairs to the sanctuary’s second-floor West Gallery, home to the church’s new organ. The bespectacled pastor, dressed in khakis and a blue Christ Church polo shirt, seems younger than his 60 years. A native of California, Safford has led the Christ Church congregation since 1999. He is just the 19th rector in Christ Church’s history, which dates to 1695, when colonists erected a small wooden church on this site near the Delaware River.
Safford says his nearly 500 congregants are an eclectic, diverse bunch. But their pockets are only so deep. “It’s a good gig and in a sense there’s a lot of prestige in being the pastor of this hugely historic place,” he says. “But if you remove all of that history, we are another inner-city church with bad parking. ...When it comes down to it, we face the same problems as other churches: declining attendance and way more property than a congregation can take care of.”
The church building is one of Philadelphia’s most popular tourist sites, attracting some 250,000 visitors a year. Admission fees and members’ annual giving are still not enough to pay for upkeep, so in 1965, the congregation organized the Christ Church Preservation Trust (CCPT). The nonprofit oversees restoration, maintenance, and visitor programs at the church, its burial ground, and its adjacent community arts center.
In 2018, CCPT executive director Barbara Hogue and her team launched Phase 1 of what would become an approximately $6 million campaign to fund not only the steeple restoration, but also a new organ and repairs to the brick tower at the steeple’s base. Miraculously, their first major gift came from a woman who had never even set foot in the church but loved pipe organs. Several generous grants came next. “It’s that kind of thing you find working for Christ Church,” Hogue says. “We think we’re never going to get this organ built and then a woman who has never been here before gives us a million dollars. Or we think we’re never going to get this tower-steeple project off the ground and we get five really big donations that we had no right to expect. There are a lot of things that magically happen here.”
One of those five major gifts—a capital grant of $250,000— came from the National Fund for Sacred Places, a program of the nonprofit Partners for Sacred Places in collaboration with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Fund seeks out thriving congregations of historic merit that effectively engage their communities. Christ Church checked all the boxes.
“The thing with Christ Church is that they have all these pieces to their identity,” says Chad Martin, director of the Fund. “They’re one part historic site with tons of visitors, one part arts venue, and they’re still a church. And they’ve really done a good job of letting all those program areas interact with each other.”
Those arts events mainly take place at the church’s arts and cultural center, known as Neighborhood House. The circa-1915 four-story building boasts meeting areas, subsidized rehearsal and event space, and a 110-seat theater that last year hosted 189 performances by 80 different artists and arts organizations. Between May and October, there’s even a church-organized farmers market out front.
Constructed at the time of the Settlement House movement, the Neighborhood House building originally offered food distribution, job training, and a “ladies’ lunchroom” for the surrounding immigrant population. It fell into disrepair during the second half of the century, until nine years ago, when the church restored and revived it as a community resource. “It enlivens this corner of Old City, and I think a lot of the neighbors enjoy this idea of Christ Church being a real neighborhood hub,” says Hogue, whose office oversees Neighborhood House programming.
Other programming on the site includes organ concerts in the church. Before the C.B. Fisk organ company, based in Gloucester, Massachusetts, installed the new organ in 2018, there had only been four others throughout the building’s history. The previous instrument, in use since 1935, was a house organ not built for a church and had deteriorated badly over the decades. “It became this constant struggle from about the mid-’90s to keep it limping along,” says Parker Kitterman, music director and organist. “We had this opportunity for the first time to build an instrument completely designed to maximize the potential of the space.”
Standing on the West Gallery, Safford and I admire the organ’s shiny metal pipes soaring about 25 feet above the keyboard. C.B. Fisk restored the intricately carved, white-painted organ case to as close to its historic appearance as possible.
“The thing with Christ Church is that they have all these pieces to their identity. They’re one part historic site with tons of visitors, one part arts venue, and they’re still a church.”Chad Martin
To accommodate the new pipes, the team had to raise the case roughly 30 inches and reconfigure its base paneling. At the same time, they were able to fit all the pipes within the sanctuary and close a 20-by-22-foot gap at the base of the tower, where the old organ’s pipes had led.
“One of the big things was to remove the pipes from the tower and put the whole instrument in the gallery, which is how it was historically,” says architect Christopher Miller of John Milner Architects, who worked on the project. “That was important because the pipes were susceptible to moisture and temperature fluctuation in the tower. Putting the entire organ in the same space solved those issues. And it also sounds better because it’s all located in the space [the instrument] is speaking to.”
From our perch in the West Gallery, Safford and I can take in the entirety of the sanctuary, which was redesigned in the 1830s by Thomas U. Walter, architect of the United States Capitol dome. Safford points out the elegant brass chandelier brought from England in 1744 and still in use; the curvaceous wooden “wine glass” pulpit, made in Philadelphia by carpenter John Folwell in 1770; and William Penn’s baptismal font, which may date to medieval times and is thought by some to be the oldest object in America continually used for the same purpose. (Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, was a Quaker, but he was baptized as an Anglican. So when Christ Church opened as the first Anglican church in Pennsylvania, the bishop of London sent the font there, as a gibe at Penn.)
If you had visited Christ Church in 1790 or thereabouts, you might have spotted George Washington and his family in Pews 56 and 58, collectively known as the Presidential Pew. Pew 70 was reserved for Franklin, who wasn’t much of a churchgoer, “but we got him in the end,” says Safford, referring to the Franklin family grave, located in the church’s burial ground, several blocks away. Franklin’s gravesite, cracked and pitted after years of weather damage and visitors following the tradition of tossing pennies on his tomb, received its own restoration in 2017, with help from a GoFundMe campaign and a surprise gift from rocker Jon Bon Jovi and his wife Dorothea, who both showed up at the dedication.
Safford leads me back into the base of the tower and we ascend a metal ship’s ladder to a higher level. This is the “ringing floor,” directly below the belfry, where men would pull long ropes to ring the chimes. That practice placed too much stress on the tower, so since the early 20th century the bells have been clavier-rung. In this less-impactful system, only a keyboard-controlled clapper moves to strike the bells.
The rector, wearing black sneakers—far more suitable steeple-climbing shoes than mine—scampers up a 25-foot-tall wooden stair set at an acrophobia-inducing 70-degree angle. He pops open a small door in the ceiling, and we emerge in the belfry itself. The 12 bells—eight of which were cast at London’s Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the same company that produced the Liberty Bell—hang from a network of thick English oak beams. Wooden wheels, once used to rotate the bells, stand silently above them. The space is dusty and dimly lit and lined with walls built of thick Pennsylvania schist. It feels as if we’ve stepped back in time. In this room, you can almost picture a portly John Adams, who wrote of climbing the tower’s ladders to gaze upon the city in 1774.
We continue our climb up a wooden ladder, ducking beneath some of the room’s steel cross-bracing added during a previous renovation, to gain access to the next floor of the tower. This two-level octagonal room lies just beneath the steeple’s open-arched cupola, or lantern. There’s a phalanx of cross-braced wooden timbers and steel reinforcements throughout. What’s most notable is the plethora of names, carved or painted onto the wooden beams by workmen who have made repairs to the church tower and steeple over the years. One reads “J.E. Dodd, 1849.” Another says “Norman Ables, Artist & Son, Richmond. Gilded with gold leaf the top ornament of this church, July 1966.” Safford points out some of the earliest carvings, including one from 1789. “Every work crew that comes up here is permitted to leave their name somewhere,” he says. “It’s not an actual policy, but who’s here to stop them? It’s a memorial to the trades.”
Almost as soon as workers finished the church’s steeple, it required improvements. The steeple’s architect, Robert Smith, was called back in 1771 to make substantial repairs. “The ends of the great timbers [were] so rotten as to be a mere powder,” recorded documents at the time.
Then in 1908, a lightning strike set the spire ablaze. Luckily, the subsequent rains extinguished the fire before more damage could occur. These days, the steeple is protected by a water curtain system, most recently tested after fire devastated Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris last spring.
Safford says major repairs have occurred roughly every 50 years since the church was built, in addition to more frequent maintenance work. “Every generation, you have to take out the bad and put in the new. There have been so many timbers replaced and reinforced,” he says.
Architect Miller compares the steeple to a patchwork quilt, a mix of old and new. “Many materials we’ve surveyed are historic; others are not. If they’re still in good condition and doing their job, there’s no reason to replace them.”
Some of the most significant work took place in the mid-1980s, after Keast & Hood’s structural survey revealed the steeple’s lean. In 1985, workers used twin 22-foot-long steel sister beams to reinforce both sides of two of the eight massive vertical posts that support the spire in each of the octagon’s corners.
According to Brian D. Wentz, director of historic preservation for Keast & Hood, reinforcing the remaining six posts might constitute the biggest challenge of the current restoration. “We were standing in the tower room trying to figure out, how did they get these steel beams in here?” he says. Wentz believes workers removed plywood floor sheathing where the lantern sits on the octagonal base and inserted them with a crane through a round louver. It’s essentially the same technique current-day workers are employing for this project, which will be completed early this spring. “Just try getting a 22-foot-long piece of anything into that space,” says Wentz. “It’s not as easy as you’d think.”
Safford and I climb a final ladder up to the room’s second level, where the “floor” is really just a section of wooden planks lining the outside of the octagon. It’s a dizzying view 20 feet below, as I hug the walls, hoping my wingtips hold their grip on the dusty planks. There’s a small door by the ceiling that leads to the lantern, but this is as far as we’ll climb.
Still above us looms the spire itself, topped with a weathervane and a gilded copper bishop’s miter, adorned with 13 six-point stars. The miter was erected in 1787 to commemorate the consecration of the first presiding Episcopal bishop, William White, rector of Christ Church for 57 years. The miter and movable vane have both been re-gilded, and the scepter-shaped lightning rod has been restored.
Ultimately, Safford says that while the current project won’t correct the steeple’s list, it should preserve Robert Smith’s achievement for generations to come. (Listing historic structures are rarely corrected outright, because it’s often prohibitively difficult and can make the situation worse.) The rector marvels at the magnitude of work undertaken by previous generations just to keep the historic structure standing.
“It’s like the story of the Ship of Theseus,” he says. “A ship leaves port and sails around the world and along the way, they replace the mast and the anchor and this and that and when it sails back into the harbor everything has been replaced, but in the view of many, it’s still the same ship. And I think the steeple is like that. There may be new wood and steel up there, but as far as we’re concerned, it’s still the same old steeple.”