PORTSMOUTH — With construction set to begin, accessibility and connectivity are the pillars of St. John’s Episcopal Church’s vision for the future of the church and its adjacent parish hall.
A groundbreaking ceremony Thursday outside the steps of Thaxter Hall, St. John’s parish hall, commemorated the beginning of construction at the church originally constructed in 1732.
The Rev. Rob Stevens, rector of St. John’s, led prayers before dozens of parishioners who gathered to mark the occasion. He briefly explained the highlight of the project: the construction of a connecting hall between the church and Thaxter Hall.
“And so I think it is incredibly important that these buildings are being connected, especially in a time where our culture has a hard time connecting because we’re kind of stuck,” he said.
The mission of St. John’s, he added, is to accept all who come forward. Prior to the pandemic, he said worship services on Sundays would attract 350 churchgoers and that other events and programming, including the weekly lunch provided by Common Table, continue to serve approximately 1,000 people every week.
Other outreach programs that call St. John’s home include AA groups, Al-Anon, Easter Seals, choir groups, book groups and the Resale Shop, according to St. John’s vestry and building committee member Barry Heckler.
Stevens said that, in the winter, Chapel Street becomes hazardous due to the weather and that individuals descending onto the church are sometimes at risk of injury.
“All people are welcome here, and yet our building didn’t reflect that because in the wintertime, this is treacherous,” he said. “It is so nice that we’re going to have a building that actually reflects our mission.”
What will the project entail?
Named after longtime parishioners Judy Roberts and her late husband, Lew, Common Table volunteers since its founding in 2001, Roberts Hall will be the name of the connecting structure between St. John’s and Thaxter Hall.
About 12 feet tall, the structure will connect the roughly 20-foot distance between the church and the parish hall, providing a safe connection between the buildings that will make each structure handicap accessible for the first time.
“Folks will no longer have to exit the church onto Chapel Street to gain entrance to Thaxter Hall, or climb Chapel Street and the church exterior steps, which can be quite problematic in bad weather, to gain entrance to the church,” Heckler said.
An elevator and chairlift is being added inside Thaxter Hall for handicapped and wheelchair-bound folks so they can reach the second floor of the parish hall.
Project superintendent Reginald Baird, a St. John’s parishioner and a retired Coast Guard engineer, said that Thaxter Hall has received new lighting, a new stove and a fresh coat of paint.
Roberts Hall connecting the two existing buildings will allow for quick access to events and celebrations after church services, he added. “So now… if you have a wedding or you have community functions, you have a nice, decent place to have it,” he said of the updated Thaxter Hall.
New Jersey-based architect Michael Campbell, who Heckler said has coordinated and overseen more than 55 historic church renovations across five states, is the project manager.
How long will the project take?
Project leaders have their sights set on Halloween day this upcoming fall for the Roberts Hall structure to be completely enclosed.
Heckler said that, hopefully within the next eight months, the entire project will be complete.
How much does the project cost?
The grand total for the church project, elevator and chairlift included is $936,000, which was raised entirely by donations from parishioners and private donors, according to church leaders.
Baird noted the site has undergone $156,000 of electrical maintenance over the last year.
When did the original church burn down? Which presidents have visited?
Effectively five stories high when peering out at every corner of the city from the windows of its yellow steeple, St. John’s Episcopal Church was originally built as a wooden structure in 1732.
Tragedy struck Portsmouth on Christmas Eve 1806, when a nearby fire blazed through about 300 buildings, including the then-74-year-old church. Exactly six months later, on June 24, 1807, the two-story brick structure that still stands today was built.
On Thursday, Baird pointed out historic aspects to the building.
A staircase leading underground leads to the church basement, used for storage of religious relics and old items no longer in use. With a roughly six-foot tall crucifix, plastered with photos of smiling people, leaning up against a wall next to it, Baird unlocked the door leading to a secret tunnel sitting beneath the church cemetery, where roughly 80 Portsmouth residents are interred.
The tunnel leads out to Bow Street, he said, and Baird recalled a time when a group of volunteers found an old sign referring to bootleg whisky, fueling more intrigue about the possibility Frank Jones, the wealthy ale tycoon and former city mayor, stored alcohol beneath St. John’s in the 1800s.
“But at least we know that there was something going through there that needed to be hidden,” he said.
Home of the oldest working pipe organ in the country, St. John’s has hosted two presidents, George Washington and James Monroe, for church services. On his visit, Washington sat in one of the chairs sitting upon the red-carpeted altar, chairs that are still in use at the church today.
While most famously remembered for his daring midnight ride in the Revolutionary War era, Paul Revere is forever linked to the church as well for his work repairing the church bell in 1802, a factoid inscribed onto the bell.
St. John’s Episcopal Church, a landmark on the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.