Whaling Church renovation gets crowning touch, and reveals some surprises

A crane swings the repaired structure towards its destination at the top of the church. - Photo by Sam Moore

Updated Dec. 2. Main Street in Edgartown was closed Monday morning while a crane hoisted rebuilt spires and crenellations to the top of the Old Whaling Church. The 172-year-old church’s tower has been under repair for a month by the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, with a grant from Community Preservation Act funds from the town of Edgartown. While the crowning is not the last step of the project, it’s close to it, said Preservation Trust executive director Chris Scott.

Scaffolding will remain in place until the final touches are completed, but the church will be open for scheduled events in the interim.

The new “crown” of the Old Whaling Church was refurbished by Myles Thurlow in his West Tisbury workshop and painted by John Anderson, who also served as the project supervisor. The last time the tower was worked on was in the late 1980s, Mr. Scott said.

“It’s so much effort to get up there, so it only happens every 30 years,” Mr. Scott said.

Such a long lapse between upgrades means a myriad of needed updates accrue. Originally, the trust had hoped to have the towner renovation done by Thanksgiving, but as the structure was taken apart, substantial rotting was found. Previous work on the tower incorporated marine plywood, which Mr. Scott said was a good idea in theory, as the wood is sealed and waterproofed. However, any cracks in that seal allow water to get inside, ultimately causing rot. Because of that, the marine plywood was replaced largely with mahogany during this renovation.

“It had to be substantially rebuilt,” Mr. Scott said as he watched the crane operators prepare the crown for liftoff.

The morning was chilly and windy, and the project crew had to be cautious of the square structure being tossed and twirled around once airborne. Crewmembers stationed themselves on top of the tower and in the street in front of the church. Those on the ground finessed a rope attached to one corner of the crown, pulling it so that the corners stayed aligned with where they would eventually be permanently placed on the tower. Those on the tower grabbed ahold of the square and guided it to its proper resting place. Though it took nearly two hours of preparation by the crane operators, the entire process took about 15 minutes from liftoff to landing.

Symbol of Edgartown

The renovations have provided a learning opportunity for the Preservation Trust about the architecture of the iconic building. For example, the golden spheroids on top of each spire, commonly thought to be and referred to as pineapples, are actually acanthus leaves, Mr. Scott said. Like most people, he was unaware of this until the renovations, but he said it makes a lot more sense to him than tropical fruit.

“They’re a symbol of rebirth in Greek mythology,” he said. Each acanthus bunch also features a metal rod sticking about a foot and a half out of its peak, which he said are lightning rods.

The clocks on the tower also got a facelift this month. Though not yet unveiled, two of the four clock faces were entirely replaced, also by Mr. Thurlow. Interestingly, though the Old Whaling Church is owned and maintained by the Preservation Trust, Mr. Scott said that Edgartown owns the clocks.

“There was a philanthropist in the ’80s who thought the town should have a chiming clock,” he said, and the donor gave the clocks to the town. The Methodist Church, which maintained the building at the time, allowed the installation of the clocks, so long as the town took care of them.

Those bells should be turned back on soon, though there is no official date.

“This tower is kind of the symbol of Edgartown,” Mr. Scott said.

 This article was updated on Dec. 2.