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Welcome to my world!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Pointing the Way to Heaven: The Second Congregational Church's Iconic Steeple

The August 28 edition of Greenwich Time featured this story on our journey up the steeple of the Second Congregational Church. The photos were all contributed by me. It was not in the online edition of the paper.  I received two copies from Christopher Semmes literally on my way to Newark Airport and my return to Honolulu on August 29. By the way, I am a native of Round Hill, not Cos Cob -though I did live in Cos Cob when I was in graduate school while attending Manhattanville College in New York. 

It was a dream come true.

I was about to boldly go where very few people had gone before -up the interior of the steeple of Greenwich, Connecticut's Second Congregational Church.

Just before I was due to leave town and return to Hawaii Christopher Semmes, Church Caretaker Tony Izzi and I were to ascend to the top of the steeple. It had taken a long time to get to this point. Scheduling conflicts made for a complicated route to get us all together in late August. But as we like to say, "God will provide."

A pictorial story was featured about our journey in the Greenwich Time newspaper. It was published the day before my departure. It was not, however, featured in the online edition of the paper. So, for Greenwich residents and expats everywhere I have some wonderful news for you!

You have been invited by me -a church member and direct descendent of the founders in 1705- to come along for the climb! I've included many more pictures and comments than the published story in Greenwich Time.

So, without further delay, let's go!

At long last! I had not been up inside the steeple in many years. Here I am in the cemetery next door with the steeple in the background. 

At 217 feet tall, the steeple is the tallest structure in Greenwich. It was dedicated in 1858. I am a bit partial when I say that there are very few places elsewhere in which I feel so centered and connected than here. 

This is an image I captured of the steeple in July 2008. I was standing on Island Beach, a small recreational island off the Greenwich coastline. I estimate that the distance is three miles. The steeple is used as a navigation landmark for passing ships going to or coming from New York City. It's been that way since 1858!

This nondescript door off the west balcony in the main sanctuary was our gateway to the ascent up the steeple. 

This is the sound and light room for the main sanctuary. A second doorway would lead us to the initial steps of our ascent. 

So, now you know where the Christmas decorations are stored. 

One of the first things I did when we entered the steeple was look straight up. Here's what I saw. You can peer all the way to the level where the clock mechanism is housed. 

This is a section of the original weathervane that once stood atop the steeple in 1858. The one you and I see today is a reproduction. It's quite big, by the way. In the space provided this was the best I could do for an comprehensive shot. 

These were the first set of "stairs" we ascended to the next level. Tony said that the incline is at 70 degrees, not the usual 45 degree angle! It was more like climbing a set of ladders. Those steps or rungs are not very wide either. 

After ascending the first set of stairs this was the scene I encountered. One of the aspects of our journey was that each level inside the steeple had a character or personality of its own. The warmth emanating from the window fostered a sense of stillness that I found calming. As you can see another set of steps awaited our ascent. Up, up and away we went! What would be find next? 

Those stairs are narrow and steep, trust me. Tony laughed when I showed up wearing white pants given all the dust that was everywhere. Somehow I managed to keep myself clean. Ha ha ha!

The light streaming though this lower level of the steeple evokes both the light of hope and creation.  As I peered out this window this is what I saw:

Have you ever wondered what the right turn at the top of Milbank Avenue at East Putnam Avenue looks from up on high?  To the left in the image is part of the main gate to the former Milbank estate that once graced the nearby landscape. The skies above us were hazy. If you look closely at the image you can see the North shore of Long Island on the horizon. 

More steep stairs awaited us. Each portal to the next level was very narrow. I could barely fit my shoulders though them. 

The next level was an interesting contrast to the one below.  The subdued light in this space reminds us that true beauty is revealed when there is a light from within.

The stairs to the next level were the first to be off-center. It would be on this level where we would encounter the steeple's clock mechanism.

The amount of space for us to move had considerably narrowed and dwindled by this time. We could not peer into the clock mechanism itself since it was housed behind and underneath a wooden covering.

Walking atop the wooden housing of the clock mechanism was the most delicate part of the journey. What you are seeing here is from the platform at the base of the final stairs to the church bell level -and the outside.  The pole that you see is what controls the hands on the clock you see from the streets and sidewalks below.

Yes, that is natural sunlight! We're almost there!

One last look down before I ascended the final stairs to the top. 

Christopher Semmes went up just before me and after Tony Izzi reached the top. I was next. 

The truth? I felt like a kid in a candy store when Tony Izzi, Christopher Semmes and I reached the top. I suppose this was the first time anyone would be able to share images of the experience via the Internet. With that in mind I'm really glad you could come along -no matter where in the world you happen to be. 

When I emerged to the bell level I captured this image looking straight up into the pinnacle of the top of the steeple.  

The February 14, 1919 of the Greenwich News & Graphic reported that "that Charles N. Mead had presented a bell for the new spire, in memory of six successive generations of deacons in his family, serving this church for nearly 200 years."

"It will be a victory and peace bell, bearing the inscription “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth Peace, Good Will Toward Men.” It will be cast at the Meneely Works in Troy, and probably will be installed by Easter Sunday."

Christopher Semmes was having the time of his life. Could you blame a photographer for feeling a bit joyful? Commanding views such as what we were treated to are rare. 

When the steeple was built almost 160 years ago lime, sand and mortar were used in the stonework. Weather extremes and other factors caused the top section in particular to disintegrate. This was discovered during World War I. The entire steeple was rebuilt using the scaffolding pictured here. Each stone was removed and labeled. But a windstorm around Easter Sunday 1918 caused the scaffolds to sway dangerously. Without the stonework there to anchor it, the scaffold collapsed. 

A view of the adjacent cemetery from the top of the steeple. From 1917 to 1919 the steeple was methodically removed and rebuilt. Scaffolds were supported by guy wires, one of which was connected in the cemetery. During a sudden windstorm sometime around Easter, 1918, the scaffolds collapsed into the cemetery and damaged a number of the gravestones. A number of those damaged gravestones still dot the cemetery. 

This is a direct view from the steeple looking out towards the Village of Cos Cob, Riverside, Long Island Sound and Long Island, New York in the distance. 

This commanding view looks out towards the First Presbyterian Church's steeple, the downtown Greenwich district and beyond into Southern Westchester County, New York. If you look closely at the horizon you can catch a view of the Manhattan skyline in New York City, about 45 miles away. 

Pointing Heavenward, Greenwich's Second Congregational Church was designed by Leopold Eidlitz and dedicated in 1858. The steeple is 217 feet tall. 

In 1994 my local history column was entitled Looking BackGreenwich Time published an article I penned, When a Town Landmark Almost Tumbled. Here it is, transcribed in its entirety from the Sunday, April 17 edition:

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