One year after fire, St. Mark’s is slowly being rebuilt

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — St. Mark’s Episcopal Church is still a long way from being restored after a fire tore through the nearly 200-year-old historical structure on New Year’s Day 2016, but one year later progress is being made.

West Orange construction official Tom Tracey said the building’s walls have been shored and its windows have been braced and infilled. Tracey said bond beams — horizontal beams consisting of rebar and poured concrete — have been placed on the tops of the walls to better secure them while also providing a stable, flat surface to which the new roof system can be attached. The beams will additionally help protect the structure from bitter winter weather, he said.

“The tops of the walls are not as subject to the weather as they were once before,” Tracey told the West Orange Chronicle in a Jan. 5 phone interview while discussing the bond beams. “They’re not open to the elements.”

Tracey said he inspected and approved the bond beams after issuing permits for their addition. He is now just waiting to grant permits for the roof system. But that cannot happen until after the West Orange Historic Preservation Commission provides a certificate of appropriateness for the roof design.

Zachary Gidich, the project’s architect, said the final roof plans should be ready for submission to the HPC and Tracey this week or next week. Gidich said the plans will illustrate a roof system consisting of steel trusses and synthetic slate. Those materials were chosen to save construction time and money, with the architect pointing out that it would be very expensive to use wood trusses and real slate tiles as the original roof had. At the same time, he said, preserving the church’s original appearance is of paramount importance to him.

“We’re going to be constructing the roof as it used to look like using today’s technology,” Gidich told the Chronicle in a Jan. 6 phone interview, adding that the colors and aesthetics of the synthetic slate are especially similar to real slate. “From the street, as you’re walking by, I don’t think anybody would know the difference.”

Using steel trusses comes with structural benefits as well, according to Gidich. The architect explained that the original wood trusses relied on the stone walls for additional support to take the lateral support of the roof load. But the fire might have damaged the walls, he said, which could make them insufficient to support any lateral loads. He said the steel trusses will prevent the walls from taking any lateral loads, leaving them to take only vertical loads.

Gidich further explained that the roof will have an A-frame truss system consisting of two separate pieces that will be bolted and welded together. Once attached, he said a crane will lift the roof up onto the church walls.

The HPC saw preliminary designs of the new roof system when Gidich presented them at its Dec. 14 meeting. Vice Chairman Martin Feitlowitz said the HPC was “very favorably impressed” with the architect’s vision after initially meeting with him in November to offer guidance. Feitlowitz said it appears he is on the “right track” and has a good understanding of exactly what the HPC is looking for regarding the church’s exterior.

The HPC now hopes Gidich will submit his final plans as soon as possible so a certificate of appropriateness can be issued and the roof can be constructed, Feitlowitz said. According to the vice chairman, the HPC was told that the International Federation of Chaplains — which bought the property in March 2015 for the International Council Liberation for All Souls to use — intends to restore the church in incremental stages. The HPC does not have the authority to tell the federation to work faster, but Feitlowitz said it did stress the importance of building the roof to Gidich, and thinks the architect understands the urgency.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that by the springtime or hopefully before that we’ll see a roof on the building,” Feitlowitz told the Chronicle in a Jan. 6 phone interview. “That would be a very positive step. Although, it’s taking a lot longer than we would have liked.”

According to Gidich, a timetable for the roof construction has not been laid out yet. But he said work should be completed in a “reasonable” amount of time.

Cost will undoubtedly play a large role in the restoration of St. Mark’s moving forward. Minister Sergio Artiles Jr., whose father owns the federation, said the roof alone will likely cost about $45,000, and estimates that completion of the entire project will cost approximately $1 million.

To help raise that money, Artiles said the federation recently launched the website so people can make donations. He said the federation also plans to write letters to companies and West Orange community members asking for support.

Meanwhile, Artiles said the congregation raised roughly $10,000 for pews during six to eight months through fundraising efforts such as food and clothing sales. He said it also continues to set aside a portion of church members’ tithes to pay for expenses like the roof. Additionally, he said the federation has even saved money by having volunteers do some work, such as the wall stabilization and debris cleanup, only paying a stipend to the licensed church member leading them.

Even with those efforts, however, Artiles said money remains hard to hold onto with such a large project.

“It’s like money just comes in and, poof, it’s gone already,” Artiles told the Chronicle in a Jan. 5 phone interview.

Still, Artiles said he is optimistic about the church restoration, and the congregation continues to pray for its success. The minister said he is especially eager to complete the project because he knows how much St. Mark’s means to West Orange, where it has been a local icon since it was built in 1828. And while the church will not be exactly the same as it was before last year’s fire, he promised that its original appearance is far from forgotten.

“I do believe that we should try to just make it as close as possible” to how it used to look, Artiles said.

Once the roof is completed, the interior will be the next phase of restoration. Gidich said he has not yet started working on any plans for that, though.

Photos Courtesy of Sergio Artiles Jr.