The tornado that hit Monson, Massachusetts, on June 1, 2011, destroyed many buildings and shattered a signature structure: the steeple on the First Church of Monson. Located on a hilltop as the one of the town’s highest points, it served as a city symbol, and church officials were anxious to restore it to its rightful place. After reviewing options with the designers, they decided on a precast concrete design.
“This is the first steeple we’ve ever built from precast concrete,” says Naish Artaiz, project manager for URS Corp. The company often works with telecommunications companies to conceal antennas within steeples for churches, and Church officials selected URS to design the steeple for them.
Richard Sambor, the senior structural engineer for the URS team, suggested a precast concrete design and contacted Coreslab Structures, who worked with URS on previous projects. “My initial reaction was that it wouldn’t look right built with concrete, with visible aggregates and a darker color,” says Artaiz. A visit to Coreslab’s plant eliminated those concerns. “They showed us what they could achieve with white cement and smooth finishes, as well as their ability to replicate decorative detail.”
The Church’s committee was easy to convince once the designers and precaster showed them samples. “The precast concrete design will save them about $40,000 every 10 years in maintenance and painting fees,” he says. “And it could be erected quickly, which was a key concern.” They also were impressed by precast concrete’s long-term durability. The church building dates to the 1870s, but the steeple has been destroyed by storms several times over the years.
The precaster used small decorative pieces from the destroyed steeple to replicate the original look. The pieces were copied in enlarged form and used to cast rubber molds. The formliners also recaptured the original joints measuring 1/16 by 1/16-inch.
“We went all out to ensure the concrete design replicated the original wood look,” says Rob Del Vento, Coreslab sales manager. “Scaling-up small moldings that were more than 100 years old to create new ones was the most complex formliner work we’ve done.”
The steeple stands 135 feet tall with a width of nearly 18 feet at its base. The precast concrete components make up the bottom 77 feet of the height, with a fiberglass spire on top. The structure contains 32 precast concrete pieces, which were transported to the site with the help of a Massachusetts state police escort from the Connecticut state line.
The steeple is free-standing and consists of eight levels, with each level erected and grouted in one day to ensure it was braced securely. New footings were poured, with a two-story base erected on them. Then a slab for the bell tower was erected, followed by the belfry walls, a slab for the clock level, the clock-tower walls, another slab, the spire base, and finally the spire with communications antennas inside. The precast concrete walls were 1’3” thick at the base and narrow to 8 inches at the clock tower. “People came out to watch the erection, and they were amazed at how quickly it went up,” says Artaiz.
The fast erection pleased Church officials, too. “It’s going to be an emotional boost for the community,” Rev. Robert Marrone, the pastor, told local media. “I’m hoping that this will help people to feel more secure and that we are actually moving on.”
In addition to an immediate signature look, the church will benefit from the lack of maintenance needed over the years. When the church needs to be repainted, officials intend to match its color to the steeple’s concrete to provide a consistent look.
They also will have peace of mind that the new steeple is here to stay. “I told them that if they ever have a storm, they should gather the congregation in the steeple,” says Del Vento. “It’s not going to fall.”