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Storied church losing its steeple

Eric Fuller, left, and Dan Torrance, of Woodford Brothers, look on as a bell is removed from the steeple of the Unitarian Universalist Church at 3 Church St. in Cortland Thursday morning.

Bob Ellis/staff photographer

Eric Fuller, left, and Dan Torrance, of Woodford Brothers, look on as a bell is removed from the steeple of the Unitarian Universalist Church at 3 Church St. in Cortland Thursday morning.

A 180-year-old downtown church, one of the oldest public buildings in the county, is losing a key architectural feature as its deteriorating steeple is removed, but the congregation has plans to raise funds for replacement.

The historic Unitarian Universalist Church, or Cobblestone Church, at 3 Church St., which was built in 1836, is having its bell tower removed. It has deteriorated over the years, said Marion Lutz, treasurer of the church.

The damage, mainly to the wooden joints inside the structure, finally reached a point where the steeple was not structurally sound, she said. Church officials determined it was time to have the steeple taken down and work performed. “It (the steeple) is not something that’s repairable without replacing,” Lutz said.

The effort to remove the existing steeple is in full swing, and if enough money is raised, it will be replaced.

A building permit for the church was issued Aug. 12, said Bill Knickerbocker, deputy fire chief and director of city code enforcement. Work on the project began soon afterward, he said.

The church community has been working with Woodford Bros. of Apulia Station, Onondaga County, for the past year, said Mike Woodford, co-owner of the company. “We were called out to look at the structural concerns with the steeple,” Woodford said.

From there the company decided there were structural problems and that something needed to be done.

“It’s a timber frame structure with the original timber framed steeple under the siding,” Woodford said.

Work on removing the steeple began Monday, Woodford said. The steeple will be replaced by a metal cap, he said.
The project is expected to last a couple more weeks.

The church is one of the oldest cobblestone buildings in the county and also the oldest public building still in use in the county, Lutz said. At one point the basement of the church was used as the town hall for Cortlandville and as a school.

The building was put on the state register of historical buildings in 1993, said Linda Kline, chairperson with the City Historic Commission and Architectural Advisory Board.

The bell, which was removed Thursday morning, has been part of the church since 1835, a year before the building was constructed, when the bell was purchased from the Presbyterian Church for $160, Lutz said. The bell will be put in storage for the time being, Lutz said.

The steeple will not be rebuilt right away, Lutz said. First, grants must be secured and funds must be raised. The cost of rebuilding the steeple is estimated at over $100,000, Lutz said.

There are still high hopes for reconstruction, however. Plans are already being made to rebuild it to scale for historical accuracy, Lutz said.

“We hope to keep the church and the building in a condition to be enjoyed,” Lutz said.

Services at the church will continue as usual during the project to remove the tower, Lutz said.

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