BANGOR, Maine — It’s a steep, stifling climb up 158-year-old staircases that wouldn’t stand a chance of passing modern building codes. The higher you go, the steeper the staircases, to the point where the builders might as well have put up a ladder.
“I made it up once, so I’m pretty sure we can make it up again,” said Karl Ward, president and CEO of Nickerson & O’Day of Brewer, the company that is restoring the Hammond Street Congregational Church steeple.
At the end of the voyage up Wednesday, Ward pops open a hatch in the roof and turns sideways to squeeze through the small opening and into the cool air.
He stood up next to a bell cast by George H. Holbrook in East Medway, Mass., in 1834 and wiped sweat from the brim of his hard hat.
“This is one of the crown jewels of the Queen City,” he said.
Looking out over downtown Bangor from 118 feet above Hammond Street, Ward listed the work his company has done this summer on the steeple, which has taken a beating from a century and a half of Maine weather.
Iron Roman numerals and minute markers have been removed from the four clocks on the tower for restoration.
The bases for two of the clocks on the “weather sides” of the tower will be replaced after facing the rain and snow since the 1850s.
Four 300-pound Douglas fir beams will replace the original hewn hemlock beams that rise from the bell tower toward the top of the steeple because the originals are rotted.
New siding and upgrades to the exterior wood are in the works to keep the restored tower dry and prevent future rotting.
Painting and other projects inside the church are planned as well.
“If we do it right, this place will be here for another 180 years,” Ward said.
Ward said he has a personal connection to the church — his parents were married there in 1962. He also said he’s a history buff.
The church didn’t have the central tower and steeple when it was built in 1833. “Unappealing” twin towers on either side of the entrance and a damp basement caused “dissatisfaction” among parishioners, according to Deborah Thompson’s “Bangor, Maine 1769-1914 An Architectural History.”
Architect John Towle fixed the basement problems and designed the central tower and steeple in 1853. The remodeled church was dedicated in February 1854.
One hundred fifty-seven years later, it’s getting a much-needed face-lift.
Nickerson & O’Day reinforced the roof of the main section of the church so it could bear the weight of the staging, which wraps around the tower. The staging and tower sway slightly in the wind, Ward said, about 2 inches either way.
A green mesh around the framework prevents anything from being dropped on the street below and saves the crew from repeatedly having to clean up pigeon droppings.
The staging is complete with stairs, allowing workers to get easily from one level to the next.
On Wednesday, Ward chose to forgo staging and travel up the bell tower the hard way — through the stiflingly hot, treacherous inside of the edifice.
“You’re stepping where very few people have gone,” aside from church stewards and a few restoration crews, Ward said.
The tower’s interior was built almost entirely of hemlock. “You just can’t find hemlock trees like that anymore,” he said, holding on to sturdy 150-year-old beams to pull himself up the stairs. Handmade wooden plugs and nails hammered home by hand hold everything together.
At the top of a stairway, about 60 feet above street level, is the room that houses the clock mechanism built by Howard & Davis of Boston. It’s a cluster of gears attached to a long chain that connects to a large bucket filled with rocks in the level below.
A pulley system lifts the bucket, which gravity slowly forces to the floor over the course of a month, according to Ward.
The clock hasn’t worked for years, but Ward says his crew will try to get it ticking again as renovations continue.
Forty more feet of ladderlike staircases lead to the belfry — and a unique perspective of downtown Bangor.
“It’s amazing to think that people more than 150 years ago could do something like this,” Ward said.
Restorations are expected to be completed sometime in September or October. Nickerson & O’Day has a $250,000 contract for the work.
“We’ve got an obligation to keep all this going,” Ward said.