St. Mark’s can be saved, but the road there is difficult

File Photo According to a recent engineer’s report, St. Mark’s, above, can be preserved, provided the remaining walls are shored, first externally and then internally. The historic church was gutted by fire Jan. 1.
File Photo
According to a recent engineer’s report, St. Mark’s, above, can be preserved, provided the remaining walls are shored, first externally and then internally. The historic church was gutted by fire Jan. 1.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The professional engineer hired by the International Federation of Chaplains to assess the remains of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church following its New Year’s Day fire recommends that the church walls should first be shored from the outside using a system of braces and wooden beams or rakers.

Optimized Engineering Associates principal Guy Lagomarsino told the West Orange Chronicle that in his design plans, which were submitted to the township Feb. 8, he outlined a shoring system that starts with putting lateral braces on the church walls roughly 5 feet up and more braces roughly 12 feet up. Lagomarsino said rakers set 15 to 20 feet away should then be placed diagonally against the wall at a 45-degree angle, anchored to the braces. Lastly, he said the rakers should be held in place on the ground with concrete blocks.

This setup should happen around the building — Lagomarsino said he recommended putting two in the front, four or five on the sides and a few in the back. This will ensure that the church walls will be propped up enough to prevent them from falling outward, he said. Once this is done and workers are able to climb on top of the structure, he said beams should be placed across the tops of the walls to stop the structure from collapsing inward. Only then does he recommend that the debris be removed from the interior.

And while there is always the chance of unexpected complications — Lagomarsino said he is “nervous” about the partially collapsed chimney since debris blocked his view of the structure up to the top, though the bottom looked OK — the engineer said shoring the structure is feasible.

“I don’t think it should be a problem,” Lagomarsino said in a Feb. 12 phone interview. “If they follow my plan, it should be all right.”

The design plans and the permit requests submitted along with them must be approved by township construction official Tom Tracey before any shoring can begin. According to township business administrator Jack Sayers, Tracey is currently reviewing the plans and has not yet made a decision. Tracey was out of his office in the days before press time Feb. 16 and could not be reached for comment.

Tracey will also examine the West Orange Historic Preservation Commission’s recommendation regarding the plans, which it submitted to the township after reviewing them at its Feb. 10 meeting. In a Feb. 15 phone interview with the Chronicle, Chairman Brian Feeney said the commission thinks the township should hire an independent engineer specializing in historical structures to review the plans and provide an opinion. That is because commission members with architectural backgrounds felt that some technical information was missing from the plans, Feeney explained, though the commission itself cannot provide an analysis since none of its members are structural engineers.

What the commission does know is that the church building needs to be shored as soon as possible because shoring is the first step toward preserving a damaged structure, Feeney said. And the commission members feel strongly that St. Mark’s needs to be preserved.

“It’s one of the most important historical structures in the township and one of the most important church buildings in the county,” Feeney said. “Preserving St. Mark’s needs to be a top priority for everyone involved.”

To that end, HPC Vice Chairman Martin Feitlowitz has urged the township more than once to hire an engineer specializing in historical structures to conduct an independent assessment of the church so that West Orange has a second opinion, but Sayers said there are currently no plans to do so. Lagomarsino was paid by the federation.

West Orange Planning Board member and ardent church preservationist Jerry Eben said he is also in favor of getting a second opinion, especially after reading Lagomarsino’s preliminary stabilization report submitted to the township on Jan. 22. Though he has not seen the more in-depth design plans, Eben wrote a review criticizing the report for having numerous spelling and grammatical mistakes. The review, which was presented to the West Orange Township Council at its Feb. 9 meeting, also took aim at several factual errors in the report, such as references to the church being built in the 18th century — it was built in the 19th century — and consisting of a “Romanesque look” when it was actually redesigned in the Gothic Revival style by world famous architect Richard Upjohn in the 1860s. Eben’s review also questioned why the report did not go into detail about how the shoring process can actually be accomplished.

Overall, Eben said he believes engineers and architects with extensive experience working with historic architecture should be planning how to proceed with stabilizing the church, with contractors specializing in historic structures carrying out the work. He said the building is too significant to hire just anyone, no matter how experienced they are in other engineering fields.

“To do work on this kind of iconic building, you really have to know what you’re doing,” Eben told the Chronicle in a Feb. 11 phone interview. “This is a very specialized world.”

According to the Optimized Engineering Associates website, Lagomarsino holds a Ph.D. in engineering and has more than 24 years of engineering experience, with past projects including the structural design of the Time Warner Building’s connection to the Columbus Circle MTA station as well as the rehabilitation of storm and sanitary sewers for all five New York City boroughs. Though his resume does not indicate any particular expertise in historic buildings, he said that he has worked on many before.

Sayers said the township cannot comment on Eben’s review.
Meanwhile the question of St. Mark’s future remains in doubt, though it is clear that any restoration effort will require a great deal of work.

Lagomarsino painted a grim picture of what is left of the church, recalling virtually all that is left of the interior exists as two feet of charred remnants in the basement, a pile so dense one could shovel it like snow. He said there is no trace of any pews, while metal ornaments and plaques once displayed so proudly are now just indistinguishable melted and warped pieces.

Anything glass also melted, the engineer said, and now looks like rocks scattered across the ground. And the 2,000-degree heat caused the stone walls to crack as well, Lagomarsino said.

There is a silver lining, though. According to the engineer, the structure was built extraordinarily well, so well that it was not as badly damaged as he had expected. He said he was particularly impressed that the steeple remains in good shape and that the walls can be saved.

Still, the engineer warned that preserving St. Mark’s will not be easy.

“It’s going to be very expensive to salvage those walls,” Lagomarsino said. “Honestly with a building like this, if it wasn’t historical, I would just recommend to start from scratch.”

A representative from the federation, which purchased the St. Mark’s building in March 2015 for the Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal Church to use, could not be reached for comment before press time.