Leaning tower of Philly? Founding fathers' church gets grant
PHILADELPHIA – Back in the mid-1700s, Benjamin Franklin spearheaded a lottery at Christ Church to help fund the construction of a steeple and supporting tower.
As legend has it, he was motivated as much by his love of the church as he was by his love of science.
"He had this notion that he wanted to try his lightning experiments in it," said Barbara Hogue, executive director of the Christ Church preservation fund. However, construction took too long for his curiosity, and he started experimenting with his kite and key instead.
Now, the steeple at the landmark historic church is leaning and its supporting tower needs some serious structural stabilization.
Thanks to a $500,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities announced Thursday, the church can shore up the tower and steeple that for 56 years made it the tallest structure in North America. The grant is one of 233 projects the endowment will fund across the country.
Founded in 1695, Christ Church was the first parish of the Church of England in Pennsylvania and the birthplace of the U.S. Episcopal Church.
The church building dates from 1723, but the tower wasn't completed until 1754. The tower was the work of Robert Smith, one of America's earliest architects.
Notable church members were Franklin, Betsy Ross, John Penn (William Penn's grandson), and signers of the Declaration of Independence, including Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush and Francis Hopkinson.
The baptismal font in which William Penn was baptized is still in use and was sent to Philadelphia in 1697 from All Hallows-by-the-Tower in London, according to the church's website.
In the last 50 years, engineers installed two steel structural supports inside Christ Church's tower, and now there is a need for six more, Hogue said.
The steeple itself is tilted 22 inches (55 centimeters) off center, said the Rev. Timothy Stafford. The supports won't straighten it, but will stop the listing.
The whole project will take about $3 million, and the church has raised $2.5 million, including the new grant. The most expensive part of the project is the scaffolding itself, Hogue said, which will cost about $500,000.
The work could move quickly, and they hope to start in May and finish by December, Hogue said.
As for why the National Endowment for the Humanities chose Christ Church to announce the latest grant recipients, the organization's chairman said it was a logical choice.
"When you look at who was a part of this church, this is where our democracy evolved, both from this city and from some of the members of this church," he said.
And it turns out that the tower would have been a good place for electricity experiments. It was hit by lightning sometime between 1776 and 1777, destroying the weather vane with the symbol of the Church of England, Hogue said. The church replaced it after the American Revolution with what is called a bishop's mitre, which represented the shift from the Church of England to the Episcopal Church.