14 December 2013

Old Ship Meeting House, Hingham, Massachusetts

Walking up to the entrance.

In November, as part of a professional conference, I joined a group tour of the Old Ship Meeting House in the town of Hingham, in an area called the South Shore, about one hour's drive from Boston by group tour bus.

Hingham was established in 1635 by Puritans, religious dissenters originally from England. The meetinghouse erected by this community in 1681 is a survivor -  the oldest ecclesiastical building in the US and the only remaining New England meetinghouse from the 17th century. The civic community and the church community were one and the same at this time, and these structures functioned both as places of worship and for town business.  Peter Benes has written a remarkable book, Meetinghouses of Early New England, for further reading.

From the outside, the hip-roofed building is a rather chunky yellow presence, atop a small hill. It's the interior that makes it so remarkable.

Timber truss roof with king posts.

The roof is a heavy timber truss structure.  The inclined members forming the top of a truss are called chords and the gently curved chords of this truss were not carved - rather, the builders sourced trees whose trunk and limbs displayed a natural curvature, felled this stock and used it for the structure.

Rafters and sheathing sit atop these beefy truss members. It was difficult for me to get good photographs, but looking up into the roof is rather like looking up into the inside of an overturned ship's hull.  The somewhat fanciful name "Old Ship" was first applied in the romantic 19th century, and may refer to ship hull imagery, but this is speculation.

Our tour was led by preservation specialist Andrea Gilmore and structural engineer David Odeh, team members who developed the plan for the recently-completed  restoration of the meetinghouse. This restoration was top-to-bottom - new wiring, sprinkler system, etc. - and included structural reinforcement to one of the beams located in a difficult-to-reach attic space. Introducing a steel beam through a small dormer window was an event  master-minded by a skilled builder, whose name I believe is David Gillespie, and a talented team of craftsmen.

Easy does it, as steel nears dormer window. Credit: Rob Bayles.

For more views of the project during construction, visit the Flickr site.  Thomas Willson, church member and owner's representative for the project, shared the history of the restoration from the client's perspective and once again demonstrated that great clients are necessary for great architecture.

We also learned about previous interventions over the centuries - during the Victorian era, the church was carpeted and wallpapered, and the amazing heavy timber roof was cut off from view by a dropped plaster ceiling.  The entrance, pulpit, organ and circumferential galleries have been moved and altered, but the massive brown beams steadfastly sheltered all the activity, an embodiment of continuing faith.

View of gallery and organ.

Admiring the new structural steel reinforcement.

As part of our tour we scrambled up a steep ladder - we architects know how to have fun - to a sort of attic space and got a good "behind the scenes" look at the structural repairs.

The church can be visited during the hours of worship on Sunday, of course, or through arrangement.

The church community was established in 1635.