Tale of two buildings

Our story so far: Over the course of six months, we’d made good progress first demolishing then building inside the 126-year-old Methodist church we were intent on turning into our home. When spring arrived, we began work on the garage and yard.

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Chapter 25

When we closed on the church in November, we were consumed with our own little construction project, blithely unaware of one occurring right across the street.

Sure, we could see something was going on over there in the elementary school, but to our uninitiated and self-centered eyes, it was just another remodel or addition or whatever it was, just steer clear of our construction vehicles, we’re doing important work over here.

Of course, school construction projects are enormous community affairs given they are publicly financed and ultimately house a precious commodity: Children. Whatever was going on over there was a big deal to everyone but us.

I learned later from local folks who took an interest in our project and toured the church that the only original part of the school that was left—built in 1908—was razed just a few months before we moved to town (imagine the circus surrounding that! We filled two dumpsters; the school probably filled fifty!). The construction workers we saw coming and going were working on a building to replace the decrepit structure. The people who mentioned it to us were a little bit nostalgic about the demolished building. First the school got torn down, then somebody purchased the old church with plans to do who knows what to it. The wistful ones were kind to us, but a little sad.

school
The lawn in front of the new school building looked ready to be seeded or sodded.

Just as we chipped away, little by little, on our renovation, the school district made steady progress on theirs. By springtime, we could see workers paving a parking lot, surely a sign they were nearly done. A monument of sorts containing what looked like the old school bell was erected. Ah, another historic bell. This one had probably been used to begin many school days long ago. So the district was paying tribute to what had gone before, just as we were.

school bell
Ring my bell. No ladder required.

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Tomorrow: Tyler makes a score. Of something. Read about it here.

All power corrupts, but we need the electricity

Our story so far: My husband Tyler and I purchased a 126-year-old Methodist church to turn into our home, we demolished the interior over the course of two months, and now we were in the midst of the mechanicals phase of reconstruction.

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Chapter 22

Benjamin Franklin may have proved lightning was electrical by flying a kite in a thunderstorm in 1752, but it wasn’t until 1879 that Thomas Edison invented the electric light bulb.

Twelve years later, our Methodist church was built. It surely was not lit with electricity until at least the 1930s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the national electrical grid to bring electricity to rural areas.

Perhaps the church was lighted with gas at some point, we couldn’t tell. We found evidence of early 20th century knob-and-tube wiring and cloth-covered wiring behind some of the walls in the church, but none of it was operational, and the remaining wiring was a mix of flexible armored tube copper wire, Romex and a little conduit.

What wiring was operational was flaky. Tyler learned this when he connected uncounted power tools to various outlets. The dependable outlets soon were favored and extension cords employed when electricity was needed in far-flung church locales.

To be safe, Tyler decided to rewire 100 percent of the church, no matter how old or new(ish) were the wires. Our electrician was the first contractor we chose; he’d worked on the church in the past so he already knew what was wrong in a contemporary way and what was antique in a knob-and-tube way. By the time the HVAC guys finally finished and Glimfeather the plumber was nearly done, our walls were framed. So our electrician could go to work.

Of course, in order to get to work, the electrician needed direction. Where to put outlets? Where to switch the lights? What kind of lights? How many?

Welcome to a world of arcane terminology like amps and volts, poles and pucks, cables and circuits, cans and dimmers, GFI and GFCI.

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Tomorrow: Our first real fight about the church. Read about it here.

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars

Our story so far: Deliveries of nails and lumber were evidence that we were now building things inside the old Methodist church we were turning into a home instead of tearing things down. 

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Right around that time, the gutter guys showed up to upgrade the rain gutters on the front of the church. Thanks to a few warm days in January, Tyler determined the occasional water in the basement was seeping through a seam on the front wall of the basement. The way the old gutters were arranged allowed a significant portion of roof run-off to drop into one area in front of the church. Tyler suspected he would also have to do some excavation in front of the church at some point to improve underground drainage there, but that project could wait until spring.

In a few hours, we had new gutters. OK, we had to write a check for it, but it was immensely satisfying when someone else did the work, especially when it was twenty feet off the ground.

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Today’s headline is a quote from Oscar Wilde, one of London’s most popular playwrights in the the 1890s, the decade our church was constructed.

Tomorrow: A delivery like Jimmy John’s: Freaky fast. Read about it here.

Throughout history, small churches do their part

Our story so far: Interacting with folks interested in our church conversion brought us historical information, intel on local contractors and community activities.

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One day just as Tyler finished showing yet another contractor around the church in order to coax a bid out of him, a friendly young woman stopped by and introduced herself as the pastor of the nearby Congregational church. She welcomed him to the village, and invited him to have a look at some of her church’s historical record.

This piqued our curiosity because our Methodist congregation and the Congregational church had been yoked from 1974 to 1985, so we thought the Congregationalists might have some history of our church we hadn’t yet heard.

A few days later, I had the pleasure of enjoying coffee with Pastor Jennie and a couple of friendly parishioners of the Congregational church. They showed me around, and we paid special attention to the historical details of the church (it had been built twenty-six years before ours) and a twenty-foot-long bulletin board detailing the congregation’s history. We also looked into the written record, which provided a few examples of the little churches in our community having to weigh in on far bigger societal and political issues through the course of history.

In one example, the local Congregational congregation (say that three times fast) had been meeting in our village before they built their church and before the Civil War, which stirred up a bit controversy. A newspaper story noted: “In 1857, the American Home Missionary Society decided to withdraw aid to churches whose members were slaveholders. The society paid part of the Congregational church pastor’s salary which prompted the church to go on record against the “sin of American slavery.”

Later, as it turns out, members of the church we were now converting into a home and the Congregational church had started a chapter of the Red Cross in our little village during World War I. Here is the story, as told in the careful handwriting of the Congregational church record:

Year of 1918

With the passing of the year 1918 our church like many others has passed through one of the greatest trials it perhaps has ever had to go through. We can proudly say we have stood the test and are now in as encouraging a position as we have been for some years.

Our pastor with the Methodist minister and a few others were instrumental in getting the Red Cross started here. As the War continued and conditions became more serious more and more people became interested in the great movement until now the village has a fine large auxiliary. In the Red Cross world our church has not failed to do its duty in giving both of time and money. …

We are all very glad we could do as much as we did in a time of great need. We have all learned the lesson of cheerful giving so in the coming year let us do our part.

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Tomorrow: It wasn’t only issues of history our Methodist church had in common with the Congregational Church. They were interested in food, too. Read about it here.

Photos offer insight into the history, soul of the place

Our story so far: A church historian helps us research the history of the 126-year-old Methodist church we purchased to convert into our home.

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basement cross section
The basement walls were sixteen inches thick.

The blueprints shared with me by the church historical society described the furnace room in the basement (the church was heated with coal, which had been converted to gas forced air at some point). They also included a drawing of the cross-section of the sixteen-inch basement walls, which we’d already figured out were quite substantial.

In the early ’40s, according to the newspaper, the church was remodeled to change the seating from east-facing to north-facing, and the new entrance—the one where we now planned to install castle doors—was added.

The archive included a copy of the photo Tyler and I saw hanging in the entryway of the church where the congregation had merged and a grainy picture of the church in 1959. But we were hungry for more.

A few days later, we stopped by the local public library. There we found two more photographs of our church.

Library 1
Did the caption number “19917” indicate a date or something else? Check out that elaborate spire on tip-top the belfry.

The first might have been taken when World War I began. It was labeled “M.E. Church, 19917.” The Methodist Episcopal Church [emphasis added] was founded in 1784; in 1939 it reunited with two breakaway Methodist denominations to form the Methodist Church, so the photo was taken before 1939 in any case. In it, a grand stairway leads to the front doors beneath the belfry; both the stairs and the doorway are gone now. The siding flanking the window in the belfry is hung in a chevron pattern; fancy painted shingles decorate the peaks. In Phase Six or so of renovation, we hoped to return that window to the belfry and return some of that interesting siding to the exterior.

Library 2
Another, newer image of the church hanging at the library.

The second photo hanging in the library was taken sometime after the early 1940s. In it, one can see the former entrance under the belfry and the new entrances to the basement and to the sanctuary. The new sanctuary entrance had French doors (they were replaced at some point with the current red exterior doors); we hoped to install similar French doors inside as an entry to our master bedroom.

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Tomorrow: A conversation at the local watering hole. Read about it here.

How old—really—is this old church?

Our story so far: Our old Methodist church we purchased to turn into a home came with a long history and many memories.

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Author’s note: As one might expect in a real-time memoir, facts don’t always come to light in perfect chronology, and today I’m correcting one of those facts.

During one of the early showings of the church, Tyler and I learned from the caretaker that the church had been built in 1899, so when I began this blog, we believed the church was 119 years old.

Well, that’s close. But not quite. I learned later that the sanctuary for the church was constructed in late 1891, making the church 126 years old. So I’ve attempted to correct every reference to the church’s age in this blog (and boy, were there a lot!). Today, I’m sharing that story of discovery.

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In early January, I joined the historical society meeting of the nearby congregation with whom the parishioners of our church had merged a year and half before. Tyler and I were curious about the history of the church, and I figured these ladies might have answers.

Three women had gathered in one of the rooms of the parish hall, and they were already hard at work when I arrived. One efficient woman was filing bulletins. Another was writing thank you notes for donations to the church. The third, a long-time member of the congregation of our church whom Tyler and I had met when we attended the worship service a few weeks prior, greeted me warmly.

“Oh, I brought some things you might be interested in,” she said. “I didn’t know if you would make it here today.”

As we chatted, the woman writing thank-you notes realized I was the person who’d purchased the former church. “Are you the woman who bought the church? The one writing about it?”

She looked at me like I was a celebrity, and I was flattered.

“Yup, that’s me.” I’m sure I wasn’t blushing.

Bludeprint of main floor
Original blueprint of the old Methodist church.

This friendly group welcomed me, and directed me to a number of interesting newspaper articles about the church and the original blueprints (which were actually blue). Meanwhile, they continued their work. I learned that day that the best history keeping occurs in the present, not the past. Their work to document what was going on in their congregation in the here and now—the pastors, the weddings and funerals, baptisms and confirmations—might be best appreciated in a hundred years, just as I was appreciating the work of nameless women and men in the past who saved blueprints and cut out newspaper articles.

Poring through the newspaper stories, I learned the Methodist congregation in my little village formed in 1859 at a time when total membership in Methodist societies in America was growing rapidly and the U.S. Civil War was still the subject of speculation; Wisconsin had become a state only eleven years before. Services were conducted in the schoolhouse and in a building also used by Congregational and Baptist congregations.

The building Tyler and I had taken ownership of on Nov. 28, 2017, had been built in late 1800s by a Rev. Smith who had collected donations in order to purchase the lot for $300 on Sept. 29, 1891, not long after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes mystery and Benjamin Harrison was in the middle of his single term as president of the United States. The Sunday school and preaching hall (the modern-day sanctuary portion of the building) were dedicated two months later on Nov. 29, 1891, according to a history of the church recounted in a local newspaper.

So our church was almost exactly 126 years old.

(The motion picture “Hostiles” playing in theaters right now makes mention of a direct order from President Harrison and dramatizes the struggle of Native Americans and pioneers in that era; it’s difficult to imagine women wearing bonnets and men carrying shotguns and driving a team of horses to our church, but surely, that’s what was happening at the time.)

By 1894 (a year after inventor Whitcomb Judson debuted his “clasp locker,” more popularly known as a zipper, at the Chicago World’s Fair), the church membership had increased to twenty-five. Since women didn’t earn the right to vote in national elections until 1920, I’m guessing the figure of twenty-five was of men. An addition—what I have been calling the overflow area—was built. The addition also must have included the belfry though that isn’t specifically mentioned in the historical papers.

mauve wallpaper
Could this be original mauve wallpaper?

The 1890s became known as the Gay Nineties (history books today are quick to clarify the meaning of the word gay back then—an age of merriment and decadence). The era is also sometimes referred to as the Mauve Decade because chemist William Henry Perkin’s aniline dye—a synthetic alternative to the expensive natural dyes in use at the time—introduced the widespread use of that color in fashion. Interestingly, what appears to be the original wall covering in the sanctuary of our church is mauve-colored paper over the plaster.

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Tomorrow: We find more old photos of the church. See them here.

‘What can I say? I’m sorry. See ya next time’

Our story so far: My husband Tyler and I discovered jewels and junk in the demolition phase of converting our old Methodist church into a house.

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One of the final places we demolished was the area beneath the entryway steps.

Based on old photos we found, we determined the steps were not original to the church. The original entry was beneath the belfry; the current entry had been constructed in the early 1940s.

Leading to the opening beneath the carpeted wood steps, a cupboard door of sorts without a knob had been sealed with foam and painted over (maybe more than once). In other hiding places in the church, we’d found old Christmas decorations (disappointing) and a plethora of old doors (thrilling!), so Tyler and I were curious what might be hidden under the steps.

He chipped away at the trim around the door, discarding pieces in all directions. “I feel like Geraldo Rivera!” he said, and I giggled.

Readers of a certain age may remember Rivera, who hosted a 1986 special on The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults during which he spent an hour hyping the potential discoveries of a secret vault beneath the Lexington Hotel in Chicago. When the vault was finally opened on live TV, the only things found inside were dirt and several empty bottles. [Rivera’s last words of the episode are the title of this post.]

beneath the stairs
Ta-da!

Like Rivera, our discovery was disappointing. The members of the church had left behind only a pile of scrap wood and a Bible comic book from 1962. The best thing, in fact, was the cupboard door: Solid beadboard.

beadboard cupboard
The back of the vault door was the best part.

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Tomorrow: Chapter 11 concludes with a look at what we accomplished during demo. Read it here.

Picture this in a different era

Our story so far: Demolishing the interior of our 126-year-old Methodist church so we can remodel it into our home brings to light a number of revelations.

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Sometimes during demolition, we encountered remarkable reminders of the building’s age (besides the unremarkable dust). We spotted a couple of 1969 pennies apparently lost by a carpenter when constructing the altar area. Tyler found more than one square nail as he was taking things apart, and he discovered full two-by-fours (today’s uniform two-by-fours are actually 1.5-by-3.5-inches in size) and a piece of one-by-eight that was fifteen feet long without a single knot, not even pin knots. Even so, it was hard to remember our church had been built before Orville and Wilbur Wright flew their first airplane.

One Sunday morning about ten days after we closed on the church, we worshiped at the Methodist church in the nearby town into which our little congregation had merged some months before, leaving behind the empty building.

church in early 20th century
Here’s how our church looked at some point in the early 20th century.

Just inside the entryway in a place of honor, an old picture of what was now our church was hanging on the wall. It was fascinating. It was our church, all right, but in a different world. One could see a covered wagon and hitching posts outside the church. There were no trees, and a railroad ran behind where now was only a row of bushes. The picture revealed the original entryway of our church was just beneath the belfry. Scallop shakes decorated fluted details. This photo only encouraged Tyler’s desire to strip the current steel siding from the building.

Difficult to differentiate in the black-and-white photo, what looked like a stained glass window transom was perched over the entryway.

window inside belfry
This window inside the belfry on the second story of the church. The exterior is covered up now, but it can be seen in the image of the church above.

The window we could see from the inside of the belfry was showing on the outside in this picture. We hoped to return this window and more to the structure at some point in the belfry reconstruction process.

The church had an active historical society, and I asked if I could be invited to the next meeting. An answer came in the affirmative, and I hoped to determine the exact age of our beloved little church.

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Tomorrow: We find something else, only this discovery is on Craig’s List. Click here to read it.