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Episcopal Church’s Plaster Ceiling To Be Saved

Published: March 4, 2018

Replacing whispered prayers inside Trinity Episcopal Church this week was the sound of footfalls across thin plastic drop cloths. Painters with Artech Church Interiors of Woodbury returned from lunch break Tuesday, February 27, and resumed their quiet attention to the painted surfaces, walls, woodwork, and ceiling. Relocating ladders and setting up a lift that reached plaster roughly 30 feet overhead, they patched and painted.

Specializing in churches, the company will be repairing and repainting for weeks to come. An exterior scaffolding went up two weeks ago and work started Monday, February 19, when Historic Plaster Solutions began removing the insulation from the attic.

Trinity Church Communications Manager Kim Merrill explained in a press release that the decorated plaster ceiling above the nave in the historic Main Street church is undergoing “a treatment process that will save it for the long term.” Also at work at the iconic stone church is Historic Plaster Solutions, an affiliate of Historic Plaster Conservation Services USA (HPCS).

Trinity Church was established in 1732. The current Trinity Church building at 36 Main Street, completed in 1870, is the fourth building the parish has occupied since 1732. It was preceded by a wooden structure that stood just north of it.

According to the release, Tom Burns of Artech Church Interiors “noticed extensive cracking on the 2,500-square-foot plaster-on-wood-lath ceiling in early 2017, while putting together a quote to paint the church interior. He contacted Paul Bastiaanse of Historic Plaster Solutions who, along with church members Dennis O’Connor and Larry Coleman, went into the attic to conduct an inspection of the backside of the plaster.”

The inspection revealed serious deterioration with numerous broken plaster keys and lugs throughout. Keys and lugs are part of plaster/lath construction.

Such construction deteriorates systemically, according to the press release. “Over many decades, the plaster is subjected to relentless forces that cause it to slowly break down,” One “prominent culprit is moisture and building micro-movements” that stress the keys and lugs.

“While these plaster ceilings are remarkably durable, they all start to break down after more than a century,” said Mr Bastiaanse. “Many of them are now in a state of apprehended collapse and need to be inspected.”

Saving the plaster is important because it is considered the building’s “original fabric,” the release states, which gives it both historic and aesthetic importance. Plaster also “provides much better acoustics, is a better sound barrier, and is more fire resistant.”

In the mid-1980s, HPCS developed a method to treat deteriorated plaster ceiling systems. Called “plaster consolidation,” the treatment involves the application of various dilutions of a specially formulated acrylic resin to the back of the plaster. The method significantly strengthens the plaster matrix and bonds the plaster to the wood lath. The end result is often “better than new.”

The HPCS method of plaster consolidation has been used to treat distressed plaster in more than 150 historic buildings, including many churches.

There have been zero post-treatment problems: no ongoing deterioration, no additional cracking, no failures, no maintenance costs incurred, no warranties exercised, and no insurance claims filed. To pay for this extensive project, Trinity members used funds from the sale of former parish land to Newtown Hook & Ladder Company, which covered two-thirds of the cost of the project. The rest of the cost was generously contributed by the people who fill the pews of Trinity.

“Once you consolidate your plaster ceiling this way, you’ll never have to worry about it again,” stated Mr Bastiaanse, who provides a 25-year guarantee on all plaster consolidation work.

Historic Plaster Solutions is currently in the process of removing the insulation from the attic. The plaster will then be thoroughly cleaned in preparation for treatment, which will take about a week to complete.

Once consolidated, the useful service life of the plaster ceiling in the Main Street church could easily outlast generations. The parishioners of Trinity Episcopal Church are looking forward to a future of worshipping under their historic ceiling, once it is beautifully restored to its original condition.

All are welcome to join the members for worship services, which are at 9:30 am Sundays.

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