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Old North Foundation Awarded $48,000 Grant From National Park Service

Historic Paint Analysis at Old North Church, restoring a 1727 cherub hidden under a century of paint layers

The National Park Service has awarded the Old North Foundation $48,000 to update the church’s historic structures report (HSR). Stephen Ayres, executive director of the Old North Foundation thanked the National Park Service for their support. “The National Park Service has been a great partner of the Old North Church since 1974, when Boston National Historical Park was established. We are grateful for this grant, which will help Old North as we prepare for a major restoration of the church in anticipation of our three hundredth birthday in 2023.”

The National Park Service published the church’s HSR in 1978. The HSR contains a detailed analysis of the history of the church’s construction, ornamentation, remodeling over its then 250-year history. The Old North Church was built in 1723 in the style of Sir Christopher Wren, the famous British architect best known for St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The interior of the church was initially painted in an elaborate style, including painted cherubs in the gallery arches and extensive use of faux wood treatments.

The first major renovation of the church, from 1806 to 1815, included a new steeple (the first blew down in a gale), replacing the box pew with slip pews, and adding the bust of George Washington and the painting of the Last Supper. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the church was progressively “Victorianized” with the addition of painted fustoons, faux curtains and other ornaments on most of the surfaces of the interior.

The second major renovation of the church took place in 1912, at the height of the colonial revival movement. The box pews were restored and all the ornamentation was covered by a coat of white paint.

The Old North Foundation has been planning for the church’s third major renovation for the past decade. The Foundation architects, Elkus-Manfredi, updated the church master plan, which noted that while the church is structurally sound, most of the building systems: electric, HVAC, fire suppression, light and sound, are out of date. In addition, the brick tombs in the crypt are deteriorating due to excess humidity.

Over the past two months, through the work of Brian Powell and Michelle McGrew of Building Conservation Associates, the Foundation has been updating the historic paint analysis portion of the HSR. The most exciting result of that work has been the restoration of one of the 1727 cherubs, hidden for a century under layers of paint. This work has been supported by grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Freedom Trail Foundation, and an anonymous foundation. The results of this study will be shared with the public in a lecture to be held in May of this year.

The new grant from the National Park Service will be used to wrap up the paint analysis and support the city archeologist as he conducts several test digs in the crypt and adjacent to the churches foundations. The grant will also help the Foundation consolidate research from previous studies into the history of the crypt and the history of property ownership of the fourteen parcels comprising the Old North campus.

As a national landmark, the Old North Church is required to care for its campus in accord with strict preservation standards promulgated by the Secretary of the Interior. The research funded by the National Park Service, as well as by local foundations, will help the Old North Foundation adhere to those high standards while modernizing the church and at the same time bringing the church closer to her original appearance.

Read more about Old North’s makeover in The Boston Globe.