In Town / Local Characters / The Town Common

The Steeplewright Stuff

Most of Bob Hanscom’s work is in the 18th or 19th century. He commutes to his job up a set of narrow winding stairs, or sometimes up a ladder. And occasionally he is hoisted by crane, as high as 130 feet in the air, while standing in a yellow metal cylinder that he designed for the job.

He’s never been fazed by heights. Up there, “you can really see the hustle and bustle…the pulse of a town,” he says.

Hanscom is a steeplewright, a name he also designed because “‘Steeplejack’ just didn’t describe what I do,” he says. “There are shipwrights and wheelwrights. Why not a steeplewright?”

By his reckoning, Hanscom, 56, has painted, repaired, or completely rebuilt fifty Maine steeples and cupolas in his 22-year career. His job sites are a list of idyllic harbor towns and islands: Isle au Haut, Islesboro, Kittery, York, Lincolnville, Camden, and Castine—twice.

Steeple work is measured in inches and precise degrees. There is delicate molding and trim, stolid Greek columns, and gold leaf filigree weathervanes applied to geometrically complex structures resembling twenty-foot high wedding cakes perched atop churches, schools, and  municipal buildings.  From a distance, however, 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 houses and remodeling kitchens and bathrooms. When high interest rates soured that market in the early 1980s, he worked as a shipfitter at Bath Iron Works Naval Shipyard. He hated it. Fortunately, the steeple on the Turner Hills church near his native Greene, Maine needed repair. When he bid on it and got the job, his new career was born.

This year he has worked on an Episcopal church on Islesboro, the Turner village church, a steeple in South Paris, and the Trinitarian church steeple in Castine. His winter project is the restoration of the cupola atop 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 on the building, the old Abbott School’s repair will cost $125,000. The traditional clapboard structure had fallen on hard times before being acquired by the historical society for a home to its growing archive of artifacts. The cupola, an artifact in its own right, has just arrived in Hanscom’s workshop. Modern steeplewrights take their work home with them.

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On an overcast day in October, with the town elementary school gathered below on the town common, Hanscom motions the crane boom into position high atop the Castine Historical Society. He hooks the nylon straps and cables woven through the structure and, with two balletic lifts, delivers the two-ton bauble to his waiting trailer for the trip to Greene. He has removed bigger objects. The Unitarian Universalist steeple in Waterville weighed in at six tons.

As he watched from the common, Denny Colson, foreman of the town crew, remembers climbing up to the cupola while a student at the former high school. He was a member of the last graduating class, 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. The shoddy repairs made in the 1970s will be corrected: replace the plywood panels that don’t match the ornate details of the original base, remove the incorrect soffit fascia, repair the rotted dentils, and duplicate the ornate finial from scratch.

Pressure-treated lumber, rubber ice and water shield, .040 aluminum sheathing, and stainless steel nails will assure 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 the 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 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 finish coat of paint. OSHA might prefer the use of a boom truck.

“Lots of this will survive,” says Hanscom, gazing at the classical columns and copper dome standing twelve feet high. One of the columns is beyond saving, however, and by spring, he’ll even have re-installed the old bell that Denny Colson remembers ringing with a rope. Then it’ll be time to call the crane back for another dance with gravity on the rooftop.

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Hanscom sticks to work on the coast, where he can live aboard his sailboat Arcturus during the week and drive home to Greene for the weekend. 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, now 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.” It’s also how he goes to work and “has a productive day, every day.” 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 wheel hub of his truck. Rev the engine, apply the gouge—instant carved finial.

Once in a while, a unique opportunity will come along to test both skill and imagination. In 1986, the 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. His customers arrive by word-of-mouth and are willing to wait 2-3 years for his work, since that’s how long it usually takes the steeple renovation committee to raise the money. Hanscom gives a “hard price” based on “very, very pessimistic estimates” of the trouble he’ll find once he starts the work. New construction tends towards “fiberglass crap,” says Hanscom. Factory-built steeples need little maintenance, and fewer steeplewrights.

Recently his customers have included boat owners. His dentist asked him to refurbish a 28’ Nathaniel Herreshoff sloop, hull #1, which led to other wooden boat restoration work. If a workshop can hold a steeple, why not the 47’ Vagabond yacht that’s joined the list and is on a trailer in the yard.

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

First published in The Christian Science Monitor.

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