Backstory: The steeplewright stuff

Bob Hanscom has become Maine's 'official' steeple and cupola repairman, resurrecting 50 of the structures in his career.

Bob Hanscom commutes to the 19th and 18th century for work. The route is usually up a set of narrow, winding stairs; sometimes a ladder. And sometimes he is hoisted by crane, as high as 130 feet in the air, standing in a yellow metal cylinder that he designed for the job.

Up there, "you can really see the hustle and bustle ... the pulse of a town," he says.

Mr. Hanscom is a "steeplewright," a name he invented. " 'Steeplejack' just didn't describe what I do," he says. "There are shipwrights, wheelwrights. Why not a steeplewright?"

By his reckoning, Hanscom has painted, repaired, or completely rebuilt 50 Maine steeples and cupolas in his 22-year career. His job sites are a list of idyllic Maine harbor towns and islands: Isle au Haut, Islesboro, Kittery, York, Lincolnville, Camden, and Castine.

Steeple work is measured in inches and precise degrees. There is delicate molding and trim, stolid Greek columns, and gold-leaf filigree weather vanes applied to structures resembling 20-foot high "wedding cakes" atop white clapboard churches, schools, and municipal buildings. From a distance, they take on the sublime scale of gothic erratics piercing the skyline in this "country of pointed firs." Hanscom is de facto steward of an heirloom New England vista going back to 1730, the earliest church structure he has repaired. That was the Kittery Point Congregational Church, a job that included removing a Paul Revere bell.

Hanscom didn't set out to be a steeplewright. He studied carpentry at Southern Maine Technical Vocational Institute in Portland. Then he spent several years building and remodeling houses. When high interest rates soured the market in the early 1980s, he worked as a shipfitter at the Bath Iron Works Naval Shipyard. He hated it. Fortunately, the steeple on the Turner Hills church near his home in Greene, Maine, needed repair. When he bid on it and got the job, his new career was born.

This year's projects include the Episcopal church in Islesboro, the Turner village church, a steeple in South Paris, and the Trinitarian church steeple in Castine, for the second time. His winter project is restoration of the cupola from the Castine Historical Society, a converted 19th-century schoolhouse. Built in 1859, for $4,000, by a school committee that specifically voted to have a cupola, the work will cost $125,000. The structure had fallen on hard times before being acquired by the historical society for a home to a growing archive of artifacts.

The cupola has just arrived in Hanscom's home workshop for the winter. (Some steeplewrights take their work home with them.)

***

On an overcast day in October, with elementary school kids gathered below on the town common, Hanscom motioned the crane hook into position above the cupola atop the Castine Historical Society. With the hook, he snagged the nylon straps and cables he'd woven through the structure. And in two balletic lifts of the crane, the two-ton bauble was delivered to his trailer waiting below.

He has removed bigger steeples. The Unitarian Universalist steeple in Waterville was six tons.

As he watched from the common, Denny Colson, foreman of the town crew, remembered climbing up to the cupola while a student at the former high school. He was a member of the last graduating class in that building in 1963. His grandson, Dustin, was among the third graders watching the crane lower it to the ground.

The Castine cupola will winter in Hanscom's barn workshop. Shoddy repairs made in the 1970s will be corrected: plywood panels that don't match the ornate details of the original base will be replaced, incorrect soffit fascia removed, rotted dentils repaired, the ornate finial duplicated from scratch.

Pressure-treated lumber, rubber ice and water shield, .040 aluminum sheathing, and stainless steel nails will ensure that the restored cupola can withstand the coastal elements far better than the original spruce, lead, and copper.

It's not all new tech. Side by side with power saws, drills, and joiners that crowd Hanscom's workbench are hand tools – molding planes, chisels, and slicks – that a carpenter from 1730 would recognize.

"My methods aren't so different from [those of] the old days," Hanscom says. "I'm still working the way they worked when they built this thing." He cites the boatswain's chair he uses to dangle high above the street, paintbrush in hand, applying the finishing coat of paint. OSHA might prefer a boom truck.

"Lots of this will survive," says Hanscom, gazing at the classical columns and copper dome standing 12 feet high. One column is beyond saving, however, and by spring, he'll even have re-installed the old bell that Mr. Colson remembers ringing. Then it'll be time to call the crane back for another rooftop dance.

***

Hanscom sticks to work on the coast, where he can live on his sailboat, Arcturus, during the week and drive home to Greene on weekends. He and his wife, Audrey, live in the house he built in 1975 on 15 acres of hilltop farmland above the Androscoggin River. Hanscom family roots run 200 years deep here. His grandfather was a country doctor; his father the news editor at the nearby Lewiston Sun-Journal. In the age of sail, his great-grandfather, Nicholas Costello, was a sea captain out of Wells. His ship: Arcturus. Hanscom's son, Luke, a computer programmer, lives in the old family homestead where Bob grew up.

Although he has had assistants in the past, Hanscom likes to work alone – "just one person to look out for." He is his own, relentless boss.

Since no one goes to school to be a steeplewright, part of his method must be sheer ingenuity. He is the master and inventor of numerous improvised techniques ranging from blunt force to delicate brush strokes. For example, the "Toyota" lathe: a block of wood bolted to the rear wheel of his pickup truck. Rev the engine, apply the gouge – instant carved finial.

Once in a while, a unique opportunity comes along to test both his skill and imagination. In 1986, a former photo editor of Look magazine bought an old church in Bowdoinham. Its steeple was missing, but historic photos offered enough information to resurrect the original form, and Hanscom produced a bright copper steeple reminiscent of Russian orthodox churches. It's his favorite accomplishment: "Creating something not there any more from a photo." Another heirloom saved.

Hanscom's project list will keep him busy through 2009. Most customers are willing to wait for two to three years because that's how long it takes for steeple renovation committees to raise the necessary funds. Hanscom gives a "hard price" based on "very, very pessimistic estimates" of the trouble he'll find once he starts the work.

New, factory-built steeples need little maintenance, and fewer steeplewrights, so Hanscom is branching out. His dentist asked him to refurbish a 28-foot Nathanial Herreshoff sloop.And in typical word-of-mouth fashion, this has led to other boat work. If a workshop can hold a steeple, it can surely hold the 47-foot Vagabond yacht that's joined the list and is in his yard.

And then there are the Christmas trees Hanscom has been planting at a rate of 250 Douglas firs a year. In another 10 years, they might turn into a new livelihood – just in case he runs out of steeples.

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