Restoration brightens, gives accessibility to Stone Church

By Cynthia Prairie

When congregants returned in January to the historic First Universalist Parish in the Stone Village after a four-month restoration project, they were met with jewel red carpeting and sunny yellow walls that draw eyes to the stunning stained glass windows.

But the major aspects of the $270,000 project involved adding safety features such as fire alarms, bringing the building more up to code and making the basement, which contains a kitchen, bathroom and gathering spaces, accessible to members who cannot navigate the stairs, by adding an elevator and widening that narrow, steep staircase. And a portico was added to the side basement door.

Parish member and landscape architect Scott Wunderle said the project was paid for primarily by raising money in the community and in the congregation. On a recent afternoon, he took a visitor through the stone building, explaining its history and restoration. The building, also known as the Stone Church, he said, was built in 1845 and occupied only the top floor. At the time, the basement, with its own entrance, was occupied by town government offices. But it practiced its own style of the separation of church and state: There was no interior staircase to join the two. Click photos to enlarge.

In 1884, once construction of Town Hall was finished on Elm Street, the church built the narrow staircase leading from the foyer to the basement.

Over the years, minor updates have been made to the building – electricity and lights were installed, heating was upgraded and cosmetics were added – wallpaper, paint and carpeting. And early in the last decade, the front steps were lengthened to accommodate a wheelchair ramp.

The biggest challenge, said Wunderle, was “figuring out how to do a project like this in a democratic way so that everyone was informed and everyone (in the 70-member parish) was listened to.” Afterall, he added, the building is  “a sacred space to people.”

He added, “We’re also on the National Register of Historic Places … so conflict between today’s fire code and the structure itself exists. How do you preserve that while bringing it up to code?”

While the old wallpaper was stripped from the plaster walls, two sections were preserved for historic reference. Wunderle said that stripping the wallpaper was a big concern because they didn’t know what shape the walls would be in. But, he added, a minor skim-coat was all that was needed. That plaster covers lathe that covers stone walls that are, in some places more than 20 inches thick.

Phase I also included adding more electrical outlets, putting recessed lighting in the ceiling, which was also re-insulated, reducing the size of two pews to accommodate wheelchairs and replacing the two doors between the nave and the foyer with one center entrance. Wunderle said the single, large entrance presents a “a nice openness, it’s more inviting.” In the basement, an ante-room was created, drainage problems were repaired, the foundation below the elevator was bolstered and some new flooring was laid.

Wunderle said that there are plans for Phase II of the project, to include switching the heating system over to gas, moving and upgrading the kitchen, installing a new ADA compliant bathrooms, adding a library, office, events room and multi-purpose/kids room.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeFeatured

About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 40 years. Cynthia has worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland, and has won numerous state awards for her reporting. As an editor, she has overseen her staffs to win many awards for indepth coverage. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Rosie Harlow Segal says:

    Thank you, Cynthia and Scott, for this EXCELLENT article about the renovation of First Universalist Parish (Old Stone Church, 211 North St., in Chester’s Stone Village).

    Everyone is invited to our Open House on Sunday, June 10, 2012, in the afternoon.
    And, of course, all are welcome at our regular Sunday morning services, which begin at 9:30. Childcare is provided.

    We are so happy to have been able to REFRESH our beautiful historic building and to make it ACCESSIBLE and SAFER! We look forward to finishing Phase 2 of our project in the near future.

    Rosie Harlow Segal, Chester