LONGPORT — A year after the historic Church of the Redeemer burned to the ground, concrete walls are being erected as construction begins on the new church.
The 104-year-old structure at 20th and Atlantic avenues was fully engulfed in flames about 1:30 a.m. during the June 30 derecho thunderstorms last year. By morning, only a shell of the wooden structure was left, said Bebe Schwartz, a summer resident on 20th Avenue.
But after getting all the proper permits and other paperwork in place, construction is finally starting on the modernized replica of the church, said Tom Subranni, the chairman of the church’s board of trustees. He said he hopes to have opening day of the new church coincide with Father’s Day 2014.
Subranni recalled the early morning call alerting him of the fire.
“They said the church was on fire, and I expected it to be like a trash fire or something,” he said. “I got there about 1:30 a.m. and as I was turning the bend onto Atlantic Avenue, headed north, I see the entire bell tower engulfed in flames.”
He recalled seeing the stained-glass windows “melting right in front of our eyes.”
Herb Vederman, whose summer house is directly across the church site, said he was depressed when he returned to the shore this summer and saw construction hadn’t started yet.
He misses the view of the Spanish-style structure outside his window, saying it was a part of the ambience of his home.
“We could be anywhere in the world, with the view of the bay and the Spanish church,” Vederman said.
So he and other residents said they are thrilled the church is being rebuilt almost exactly the way it was.
Some changes include a central air-conditioning system, fire-suppression system, more restrooms, wheelchair accessibility and an adequate kitchen, contractor Dan Mittleman said.
Mittleman, of Northfield-based Shore Building, said the church essentially will have the same footprint as its 1907 original. Its new stained-glass windows are coming from the same shop in Philadelphia where the originals came from beginning in 1939.
Jim Hauser, owner of Willet Hauser Architectural Glass, said the company is going to make an almost identical copy of the stained glass that was ordered by the church from 1939 until 1963.
“We had to find the old sketches and old cartoons, and some photographs from over the years,” Hauser said. But the glass being used today is different from the originals, a change that cannot be detected by the naked eye, he said.
Some melted glass pieces that were saved from the debris after the fire were sent to Hauser, who said he was then able to tell what type of glass was used then. Most of the windows were created “during the war years,” Hauser said.
“Glass today is different. In some cases, we will have to use a technique called plating, which is overlaying two pieces to create the effect of one,” he said. This will help bring the colors and the effects of the glass to almost match the originals.
Hauser said the company has kept updated records, including color photos, of the windows from the church — from periodic inspections — which helped them re-create the windows.
Subranni said some minor details that still need attention are the organ and a bell. The old church did not have a real bell, although it did have a bell tower.
“We had a machine with bells in it, and when you struck the bells it was amplified, but it wasn’t an actual bronze bell. We would like to have a bell or group of bells,” Subranni said.
He said that insurance coverage has helped with the rebuilding, but he does not have a final cost of the project.
The “night of the fire” — as it is referred to on 20th Street — was surreal for some residents.
Schwartz said all the neighbors were in disbelief that they were watching the flames consume their community church under the pouring rain.
“All the adults were crying. You have to cry. I mean, it’s your church,” Schwartz said. Though she and her husband are Jewish, they attend Sunday services every summer.
“I felt great sadness because it was not just a building on fire. It was way more than that. (The church was) the symbol of the spirit of the community,” Schwartz said.
Neighbor Anna Nardone Ruggieri said she never thought she would have to see a sight like that night.
“It was a surreal feeling,” Ruggieri said.
“It was like day, because the fire was so huge, even though the power was out,” Schwartz said.
Now without the view of the church, Ruggieri said, she felt somewhat as if she were on a cruise with an ocean view on one side and a bay view on the other.
“But I would rather have the church,” she said.
Subranni said the new church is being built out of concrete so it can last centuries. “The old one was a wooden church and over 100 years old. It was sad to lose an old historic church, but this one is being built to last.”
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