Caveat Rector!

The newly restored rectory on Woodlawn Avenue, its wrap-around porch welcoming visitors. Photos by Michael Helgert

By Pastor Robert Hensley - August 9, 2007

The old saying that "Hindsight is 20/20" is never more true than after a new call is accepted and you move into what at first glance appeared to be a very fine rectory. This was the experience of my partner and I when we accepted the call to be the Rector of Grace Church in Vineyard Haven.

During our initial visit to the Island in late 2005, we were given a tour of the rectory, a modest two-story building constructed during the latter part of the 19th century. It was a beautiful fall day, as only Martha's Vineyard can provide, with balmy temperatures and bright sunlight. The interior of the building sported a fresh coat of paint, new carpeting throughout and was spit and polish clean. We had misgivings about white carpeting...if we received the call we would be moving in winter and we have two dogs...but we did not pay much attention to the structure of the building as we were on a strict time schedule, but the building appeared solid enough. We didn't think to look closely at the furnace in its subterranean dungeon, the electrical panel or check to see if windows opened and closed (winter was coming after all), and so on.

In mid-restoration, the rectory rested on huge beams as the foundation was repaired.

After receiving and accepting the call, we again visited prior to moving to sign letters of agreement, etc. At that time my partner took detailed measurements for window blinds, wallpaper, etc. He noted some floors that were uneven but nothing really out of the ordinary for a house that was over 130 years old. It was later, when Michael visited for a few days prior to our move to install blinds and hang wallpaper that we received the first indication of what would turn into severe structural deficiencies and years of neglect - or as it is politely referred to in ecclesiastical circles, "deferred maintenance." Mike noted that many windows would not open, that there were some screens and storm windows that were coming away from the side of the house. But again, nothing to set off alarm bells.

Moving day

A short time later we moved into the rectory. Initial fears about white carpeting were immediately realized as it was a rainy day when the movers delivered our belongings. When the furniture was put in place we knew we were going to have trouble. Nothing was level. The more weight that was added to the second floor, the more the floor sagged toward the center of the house. Dressers and cabinets along walls needed to be shimmed to achieve any semblance of being level. Later investigations revealed that one of my predecessors had had the interior walls removed to open up the first floor - many of which were load-bearing and adequate provisions to carry the weight of the top floor of the house had not been made.

Grace Church rectory
The Grace Church rectory as the Rev. Rob Hensley first saw it in 2005.

After a series of spring rains we noticed the roof leaking. We contracted to have the roof replaced and at the same time replace the windows and siding. It was then that the real story began to unfold. Rotting support beams, crumbling foundation, leaking oil tank - you name it. After a thorough inspection, we came to the realization that the first floor would need to be gutted, heating plant and oil tank replaced, many new joists and support beams installed. You get the picture. What began as just some routine repairs and maintenance turned into a major renovation and restoration.

The best

In the best tradition of making "lemonade out of lemons", we decided while the foundation work was being done to have a full basement added to the house and to restore the wrap-around porch to the front of the structure. Old photographs revealed the house as it once was, so our contractor managed to fashion many of the details to keep the historic nature of the property. You can see by the photos the process of before, during, and after.

Lesson learned: Prior to calling a new Rector, Wardens and Vestries should have a complete building inspection done by a licensed building inspector NOT connected to the parish. A few hundred dollars spent during the vacancy at Grace would have saved thousands, because all of the new wallpapering, carpeting, painting that was put in had to be removed. It would have also saved a bit of stress on the part or the wardens, vestry, myself, and my partner.

If any other congregation wants other information about the process, please feel free to contact Grace Church in Vineyard Haven at 508-693-0332.