The Year Past

by The Rev. Andrew W. Foster
Chancel, organ console, altar and mural

The chancel of the Church of the Ascension, with the new electrical organ console in position for a concert performance

A year ago we were at the beginning of what we called a “Year of Construction” and were settling into the Parish Hall as our temporary worship space. We learned that spending all those weeks shoulder-to-shoulder in folding chairs brought us closer together, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. Now that we have returned once more to our beautifully-restored sanctuary and are starting to hear the emerging sounds from the Manton Memorial Organ week by week, I thought it might be interesting and informative if I departed from my usual custom of preparing an “annual report” of the past year’s activities and instead, shared with you my version of the Big Story of what we have actually accomplished in this space over the last twelve months.

It all began last December when the family of Dr. Arthur Robinson spent three weeks dismantling and crating up the old Holtkamp organ that had served Ascension so well for so long. As this team of eager amateurs scurried around the chancel, the first stages of our work began to take shape. One of our smartest and earliest decisions we made was to hire Tom Ligamari, an architectural photographer, to document the process of our repairs and the installation of the new organ. He has generated thousands of images which we will sort through for archival records as well as using for publicity in the years ahead. We also hired a storage company to pack up all the moveable furnishings in the church – from the hundreds of pew cushions and kneelers to some of our most valued artistic treasures – the carved Bishop’s Throne and the monumental brass Eagle Lectern. Before our eyes, almost every surface in the Nave and Chancel was clad with plywood protection. The altars, pews, pulpit and font were boxed in. The tile floors in the aisles were covered and ramps were constructed up to the Chancel platform. All the elaborately-carved Choir pews were removed and sent off to a woodworker’s shop to be refurbished and restored. An enormous wall of stryofoam and plywood sheets was erected just in front of the LaFarge mural, with vents to “let it breathe” and the Saint Gaudens Angels were carefully hidden from any damage.

When the old organ was gone, work was begun in earnest on preparing the South and North Organ Chambers for their new tenant. First, a heavily-reinforced concrete slab was poured in the South Chamber to bear the weight of the new organ framework. An opening was cut through the wall above the Side Altar and the smaller North Chamber was made ready by constructing new floors and thoroughly insulating and weatherproofing the space. We discovered that long ago, this chamber was apparently some kind of “withdrawing room” off the balcony that once filled the side aisles of the Nave. We found a small corner fireplace there and lovely flowered wallpaper on the walls. It might have once served as a Ladies’ Lounge back in the 1800’s.

Meanwhile, outside the sanctuary, we had completed a total replacement of the drainage system of gutters and downspouts, adding a few new ones to provide proper and adequate removal of water. We discovered that some of the interior leaks were caused by drainpipes that pierced through the small towers on the sides of the roof. To our surprise, 2 we had to replace the membrane on the high roof which we thought was sound, until we inspected it more closely. Throughout this year, there were many surprises and unanticipated repairs that we had to address. In every instance, we decided to take a long-term view and to make the most permanent and durable repairs possible, instead of opting for a quick-fix and of course, less expensive approach.

Soon the sanctuary was a maze of interior scaffolding, reaching from the tops of the pews all the way up to the highest point in the ceiling. From this vantage, not only could all the plastering and painting take place, but access was given for the electricians to replace the ceiling lights, artfully and invisibly repairing the holes in the wooden ceiling where the old lights had been. Another surprise occurred when we learned that those fixtures required emergency asbestos remediation which was amazingly accomplished over a single weekend. The old electrical closet in the Narthex was dismantled and as the walls were opened up to do repairs to the plaster, countless new cables and wires were pulled through them from the attic right down to the undercroft, where all the new circuitry now safely resides.

We were pleased to learn that the extent of water damage to the plaster walls was much less than we had feared overall. In those spots where extensive work was done, we discovered some interesting facts about nineteenth-century workmanship. We found some old repairs that had been made by stuffing newspapers into holes in the plaster and we could then date them with some accuracy. One of the most exciting surprises happened when we removed the David Lapsley funeral memorial on the south wall to stabilize it, since it seemed apt to fall. When it was lowered from its place, we found a container with the cremated remains of Mr. Lapsley in the wall behind the plaque. He was reverently secured into his eternal resting place before re-installing the memorial, hopefully not to be disturbed again.

As construction moved forward, many day-to-day decisions had to be made on the spot. For example, we had to re-locate the fire alarm strobes in the side aisles to avoid having them be prominently visible in the Chancel. In the course of working, we found quite a few unexpected changes to the original scope of work. Any of you who have undertaken repair projects on your homes knows what this is like. You just keep finding more things that need to be fixed! The skylight in the Sacristy, which has been leaking for years, was properly replaced. The Parish Hall stairs and hallway were refinished, since they were being used much more this year. A small janitor’s closet and sink was installed in the south stairwell so that the building staff no longer had to carry buckets of wash water from afar to clean the church. Some minor improvements were made to the small public lavatory in the undercroft. We discovered that the old radiators in the balcony and narthex were leaking, so they were replaced and new covers were fabricated to divert the steam heat away from the newly-painted walls. A disconnected system of exhaust fans and vented louvers was discovered in the attic and made to work properly again. Since the lovely brass chandeliers in the Nave were all being rewired, it was decided to clean and polish them at the same time and replace broken or missing shades, greatly improving their appearance. One of our next door neighbors informed us that she could see standing water on the roof of the bell tower. Upon investigation, we realized that we 3 needed new, safe access to that roof by means of a new ladder and a safety hatch. It turned out that a clogged drain from that bell tower roof was the cause of serious water damage to the walls in the balcony over the decades.

At this point, the summer months had arrived. Gradually the main scaffolding was removed from the Nave as the interior painting was being completed. Simultaneously with all the construction work, Evergreene Arts was hard at work repairing and prepping the interior walls and applying the gorgeous decorative paint scheme we had agonized over for so many days, weeks and months. Everyone seems to agree that we made the right decisions with Evergreen’s guidance and that the combination of the warmer tones of color, the skillful glazing of the architectural details and the ashlar block pattern has transformed the church’s interior and harmonized all the old and new design elements very successfully.

As we awaited the delivery of the Manton Memorial Organ, myriad details remained to be completed. A plan was chosen for re-painting the columbarium entrance on Fifth Avenue; special organ hoists and scaffolding were built in place; the chancel platform was extended to accommodate the larger console; the “orchestra pit” in the south aisle was expanded to serve as storage for the choir pews when they are not in the chancel; the interior of the organ chambers were sealed with epoxy paint; wiring and plumbing for climate control in the chambers were completed; and all was put in readiness.

The new organ arrived during the week of September 5th in seven enormous shipping containers. Their journey from France was not without incident. First, the shipment went to the island of Malta where it waited in the port for several days. As the organ was en route to New York, there was a dock-workers strike in New Jersey that we feared would delay delivery. But St. Cecelia or the angels were watching over us – ably assisted by our good friend, Charlie Schmidt, who skillfully steered us through the arcane world of customs agents, international insurance policies, trucking companies, and homeland security. Each day, when a new shipping container arrived at the front door of the church, we convened a mini-United Nations workforce. The organ-building team spoke only French, the Latino day-laborers who helped with the unloading spoke only Spanish, and the rest of us were English speakers.

A spirit of patient cooperation prevailed and the entire unloading operation took place without incident – although there were a few close calls along the way. The assembly team, under the direction of Laurent Desmé, were a delight to work with. Many of them were young Frenchmen who shared an incredible work-ethic and also a wonderful sense of humor. At one point, they smuggled a plastic child’s toy piano into the Chancel. Informing Dennis Keene one morning that his “organ console was in place at last” they escorted our excited music director into the church and broke into peals of laughter at his surprise at their practical joke. But what really astounded us as onlookers in this phase of the process was the incredibly fine workmanship of the new organ and the speed and skill with which it was assembled. 4

In November, the organ construction team had finished their work and Pascal Quoirin and the “voicing” team arrived. It was a great moment for all of us. The Quoirins arrived at the Parish House door on a Sunday afternoon just as the Coffee Hour was starting. I rushed out to the curb and brought them straight into the church. M. Quoirin’s wife, Babou, who was the artist who designed these glorious organ cases and personally executed all the carvings, was speechless with delight when she saw them for the first time in their splendid setting.

In the final weeks before Christmas, this long and complex process was finally wrapped up. Those weeks were the most stressful and hectic of any time in the whole year. First, our furnishings were returned from storage – only to discover that both the Eagle Lectern and the Bishop’s Throne had been damaged and required emergency repairs. The Side Altar curtains and lighting were hastily installed, thanks to the excellent seamstress talents of Carol Conway. The mosaic floors were repaired, including the notorious “sink hole” in the North Aisle. New carpet was laid in the Narthex and we fixed the all-important Donations Box at the back of the church. The re-configured Choir Pews were installed. The lighting designers set the lights for use on Christmas. And the painters added their finishing touches everywhere.

We made it back into the sanctuary for Christmas Eve, just as we had hoped and planned. There are still a few items left to complete – finishing the voicing of the organ; re-connecting the Tower Bells; installing our new sound system; and finally adjusting and programming the lights. But just look around you! What a glorious outcome of our Year of Construction! Let us give thanks to God for all the gifts of skill, time, money and artistry that have been showered upon the Church of the Ascension. As we sing in that great anthem, “O Prosper Thou our handiwork!”