Monday, July 9, 2012

Steeple Update

An architectural elevation of the church, with the proposed antenna location highlighted.
There was a brief article in the New York Times on July 6th about the ongoing struggle by the First Presbyterian Church and their consultants to come up with a successful plan to install cellular phone antennae in their historic structure’s steeple (Link to article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/07/nyregion/cellphone-proposal-for-southampton-clock-tower-provokes-dispute.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all.) In it, I was particularly disturbed to read the current pastor’s comment, about how the church belongs to the Presbytery and how the leaders of its congregation “have spoken about how [it] should be used.” It reminds me of a question I once heard someone ask and which I think of often: Why should the present owners of any particular structure that has endured several generations be able to decide what is best for it? That question always leads to ownership debates and property rights arguments, but it gets to the larger point here: do the present church leaders have only the present time (no pun intended) in mind? Or are they truly acting in the church’s best interests, now and in the future?

Last July, the original submission which involved dismantling part of the turrets at the top of the church’s steeple was dismissed without prejudice by the Board of Architectural Review and Historic Preservation. Last May, a new proposal was submitted which describes installing four antennae at the clock level. Again, original material near the clock would be replaced with material more conducive in transmitting cellular phone waves, but even more significantly, the clock itself may have to be sacrificed.  The church was built in 1843, and the clock was added in 1871. It too is a historic artifact in its own right.
As of today, there were two letters in the church’s application file at the building department which I found particularly interesting. One was from the President and Founder of Save America’s Clocks and said the current proposal “may result in the alteration and subsequent loss of a rare and historic E. Howard tower clock,” and that losing the clock “would be a great loss to the world famous landmark that graces your hometown…” Good point. The other letter, dated July 5th, was from a man named Walter de Groot, an architectural ornamentation expert from Middle Island, New York. Apparently, he was hired by Metro PCS, the cell phone company working with the church, “to perform a survey on…the historical nature of the turrets on the top of the steeple.”  However, he has since quit because he believes the current proposal is “unacceptable.” In his letter he states, “The historical integrity of the original fabric, being the siding, bracing, and interior bead board, once cut and removed, could never be properly reinstalled and would leave permanent damage, both aesthetically and structurally to the steeple….Since my objection to this approach was ignored after I explained the issues, I felt I had no choice but to disassociate myself from the project…I felt the preservation of the steeple and its contents were no longer a priority for MetroPCS.”

While the particulars of the church’s cell phone antenna application have changed, it seems the problems are the same, maybe even magnified. The removal of original fabric is against both federal and local codes, and now the historic clock is being threatened. The next ARB public hearing is this coming Wednesday, July 11th. Stay tuned.

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