Hidden Dangers – Hidden Treasures
With a shaky voice I began my plea for St. Augustine’s. Sitting and listening through two days of worthy organizations asking for over $11,000,000 from the $3,000,000 grant pot, I knew we really had to make a strong case for our request of $426,410.
Austin residents watched for years as pieces of the roof and spire blew off in the wind. Pigeons and bats set up residence; their deep piles of waste accumulating in the spire, ceiling cavity, organ, and other surfaces. St. Augustine’s needed help, and it needed it now!
As far as we knew, the 1866 Gothic Revival structure simply needed a new roof to keep the elements and vermin out. More about that naive assumption later.
The Nevada Cultural Commission Advisory Board faced a dilemma. A roofing project can not be done in stages; it is pretty much all or nothing. With so many other historic structures in dire need of structural fixes, our request would take a huge chunk out of the pot.
Fortunately though, St. Augustine’s had an ‘angel’ in its corner. Q & D Construction of Reno had already said they would work with whatever funds we could muster to either repair or replace the roof. I assured the Commission that, with their help, we absolutely would work a miracle with whatever funding they could grant us. And just by the skin of our teeth, St. Augustine’s was granted $300,000! It was the second largest amount awarded.
We quickly assembled a design-build team: Architectural Historian Dan Pezzoni, of Lexington, Virginia; Structural Engineer George Lostra of Elko; Architect Pete Dube of Reno; and Q & D Construction of Sparks. The building had already been studied by Pezzoni and Pete Serafin, Architect, in an earlier 2005 grant. Their study recommended immediate attention be paid to the roof in order to protect the historic interior. It also provided plans for converting the old building to a cultural center, including new electrical and plumbing services and complete handicapped access (approximately $2,000,000 and a five-to-ten year process).
Q & D’s superintendent, Cory King, arrived in Austin in August. He and his crew quickly peeled back some of the roofing panels so Pezzoni, Lostra, and Dube could finally enter the roof cavity and assess the work needed. Their findings sent a chill down our spines!
Both sides of the roof had splayed outward. Age played a role in the decline of the framing timbers, but also substandard materials. As was often the case in remote areas in the 1800s (maybe even now!), local builders had to use whatever materials were at hand. Weight-bearing timbers transitioned from 12 inches to 8 inches and back again.
But a very significant factor contributing to the roof failure was, of all things, the pigeon poop! About 23 to 25 cubic yards of the hazardous waste was removed. This translates to approximately 15 tons!
We jokingly referred to the immense cache of waste as ‘flown-in insulation.’
Between the weight of the waste and the failing frame; pressure caused the north and south walls of the church to lean outward. The north wall was off by nearly 2 inches and the south wall was off by almost 4 inches! The roof framing had already started to separate from the walls.
The chilling realization was that the roof could have caved into the church within the next few years! A winter of heavy snow would have triggered a catastrophe. No one could have guessed this by looking at the exterior of the church; it looked like it could easily stand for another 141 years.
There are 48 carved wood ‘tails’ extending from the roof framing under the eaves. Not all could be reused and 24 new ones had to be crafted. Some of these beautiful architectural elements will be auctioned off at a later date to aid in the renovation efforts.
Timbers from the original roof were salvaged, as were a few panels of painted tin. This material will be used for restoration where possible, with some set aside for future fundraising. Likewise, stones (approximately 2 x 4 feet, 200-300lbs) pulled out of the foundation when the new retaining wall was constructed will be auctioned.
We were delighted to find hidden treasures in the spire! As is often the custom, workers through the years have signed their names and left messages on the upper walls of the spire. This historical graffiti remains to be recorded and will be a fun project. It is a nice connection to the hands-on labor over the past 140 years.