Reconstruction has begun on Longport’s iconic Church of the Redeemer, which was destroyed by fire during last June’s derecho storm.
The congregation faced a number of obstacles in rebuilding its 104-year-old sanctuary, whose bell tower rose above 20th and Atlantic avenues on a thin strip of land between the bay and the ocean.
“Everything’s an issue, and nothing’s easy,” said Tom Subranni, chair of the church’s board of trustees. “Building this type of building, there are a lot of considerations you have to think of.”
For instance, federal guidelines set after Hurricane Sandy necessitated the main floor of the new church to be waterproofed up to 12 feet. It also will tap into the main water line under Atlantic Avenue to feed a sprinkler system to prevent future fires.
But workers were driving piles Thursday for the new church’s foundation. The congregation expects to hold services in the new building by June 2014.
Redeemer was one of the oldest surviving structures in the resort community, but it’s power transcended faith or tradition. The Episcopal church drew a diverse group of worshippers to its summertime services and Christmas festivities.
“This town has very few recognizable places from its beginnings, and that was one of them,” said Michael Cohen, who felt a strong connection to the church despite his Jewish faith. “It was a beautiful church, just beautiful.”
Cohen said services were held in a tent last summer — traditionally, the church operates from Father’s Day through Labor Day — and that will continue this coming season. Like many, the former mayor and borough historian looks forward to the first service in the new church.
“I’m very proud and happy we’re going to rebuild it just as it was before,” he said.
Aside from its ground floor being elevated, a flood prevention measure, the new church will replicate the old one’s Spanish mission-style architecture.
New designs were taken nearly wholesale from blueprints Cohen had archived in Longport’s museum. Even the stained-glass windows will be replicated from photos taken before the fire.
The original church was dedicated in 1908 and completed a year later. Its stucco walls and terra cotta roof were similar to another church built around that time in Atlantic City, but there was never a clear explanation for why the Episcopal church emulated Catholic missions.
According to local lore, the congregation had been Quaker — like most of Longport’s first residents — but adopted the denomination of its benefactor.
For now, the plan is to continue as a “mission church” open each summer and for occasional events off-season. But Subranni said the new building may eventually allow the congregation to expand to year-round services.
“It’s just going to be absolutely wonderful,” he said. “I look forward to building our congregation and sharing this fabulous church with as many folks as we can.”
From the the day the original church burned, Subranni said, the congregation vowed to rebuild the old church as closely as possible. The only significant change will be a stairway at the front entrance leading parishioners to a sanctuary elevated to prevent water damage in storms.
“The floor will be higher, but with the very high cathedral ceiling, you’re not going to notice it,” he said.
The church has contracted the Philadelphia-based Willet Stained Glass Co. to replace the stained-glass windows the same firm created in 1935.
Subranni said the church’s insurance will cover most of the construction and replacement costs. He declined to comment on the full cost of the project, because not all of the subcontractors have been retained.
But some things are irreplaceable, he said.
After the fire, a few prayer books and a tattered flag were salvaged from the charred husk of the building. Many other items could not be recovered.
And the atmosphere, the smell of old Bibles and wood, will be gone. Modern HVAC systems tend to whisk those odors away.
“I don’t think we’re going to re-create that musty Old World smell,” he said, then pausing to consider: “And I’m not sure we want it. It will be different that way.”
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