Religion in the News
Dec. 29, 2000
NEWBURY, Vt. (AP) _ If God calls, the members of the First Congregational Church will be ready _ especially if the deity uses a cell phone.
High up on the sides of the 144-year-old church's steeple, barely perceptible from the quiet main road of the village, are two white plastic panels, one facing up the Connecticut River valley and the other facing down.
Hidden behind those panels, invisible to anyone gazing toward the spire of the traditional white New England church, are two antennas installed about a year ago by Cellular One, a wireless phone company serving the area.
``I've had people riding in the car with me as we come by and they say, `I thought you were going to put an antenna in your steeple,''' said Marlene Gilson, chairwoman of the church's trustees.
The 80-member congregation had fallen on lean times as the new millennium approached. Members were finding it a burden to maintain what the National Register of Historic Places has called ``an outstanding example of Greek revival ecclesiastical architecture.'' A century and a half of Vermont winters had taken their toll. Paint was peeling, the steeple had been patched numerous times, but still was being invaded by pigeons. The bill for fixing the steeple alone was expected to be more than $20,000.
``We're like every other church,'' said church moderator Bill Ellithorpe. ``We have special funds for the carpet, a fund for the stained glass. We had a steeple fund, which didn't have a lot of money in it, compared to what needed to be done.''
Meanwhile, Cellular One was looking for locations around a state with a reputation as a tough one for cellular phone companies to do business. Vermont's hilly terrain means full coverage requires lots of antennas.
A populace proud of the Vermont environment and its historic integrity, and a federal law making it difficult for state and local governments to regulate cell towers, were combining to make for acrimony in many communities where cellular companies were seeking to build.
It was in 1998 that a marriage of needs was proposed. Holly Ernst Groschner, then a Newbury resident, church member and lawyer representing Cellular One, approached church leaders with a suggestion.
Why not put the cellular antenna her client wanted to build in Newbury in the church spire, and have the church collect enough rent to shore up its steeple and its finances?
Ralph Gilson, who ended up being the church's project manager, said he was intrigued by the idea from the start.
``I really couldn't see, if they weren't going to do any damage to the building, why it would be a problem,'' he in his thick Yankee accent. ``Matter of fact I thought it was a good idea, especially when they started talking money.''
The Newbury church is far from the only historic building whose budget has been boosted in this way. The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently produced a report on similar installations across the country.
_The Zephyr Cove lookout tower, built in 1932 on the Nevada shore of Lake Tahoe, where Pacific Bell Wireless has an antenna.
_The 1936 art deco Kress department store building in downtown Fort Worth, Texas, where PrimeCo installed antennas.
_St. Josephat's Roman Catholic Church in Detroit, where white louvers set into a brick wall hide equipment installed by Nextel Communications. The louvers, like the panels on the sides of the Newbury steeple, are made of a special plastic that is transparent to radio transmissions.
``In historic areas, a concealed site is almost always preferable to building industrial-style towers in prominent locations, as long as the historic nature of a host building is respected,'' the National Trust said. ``Concealing wireless installations in existing structures can provide an essential service to a community without disrupting its character.''
Groschner, who instigated the Newbury project and helped write the National Trust report, called the steeple antennas ``a win-win for commerce and communities.''
Tom McLaughlin, Atlantic region vice president of Cellular One's parent company, said he knew of no one who keeps figures one how many cellular installations there are in historic buildings around the country. In Vermont alone, his company has 56 antenna sites, and in only five cases has it had to build its own tower. A recent installation was on a dairy farm silo.
The Newbury project involved meetings between Cellular One and church leaders and more meetings with town officials, including a public hearing. Historic preservation architect Thomas Keefe of Middlebury was brought in to ensure that the project wouldn't damage the building's historic integrity.
Inside the steeple and out of public view are two steel brackets holding up steel boxes about a foot wide and 6 feet long that hold the antennas. A new catwalk across the church attic was installed for easier access to the cables that run down the inside of the steeple and out the back of the church.
``When we first were up there, we had to walk rafter to rafter,'' Keefe said. ``You don't want someone having an accident and falling down through the plaster ceiling.''
Once they exit the church, the cables go down a small channel that is built of the same white clapboards as the original church to a newly constructed outbuilding that houses switching and related equipment.
Some members of the congregation had misgivings at first about a commercial use for a church, Keefe said. ``That issue has come up with several of the churches I've worked with,'' he said.
In the end, the congregation decided taking the nearly $30,000 for the steeple work and yearly rent of $9,600 from Cellular One would do no harm to the church's spiritual mission.
The steeple got new copper flashing, some structural work and a coat of heavy-duty paint.
And the pigeons were invited to live elsewhere. ``We evicted them,'' Marlene Gilson said.