Bell Ringer

Calvary begins replacing brick in historic tower

By Bill Dries

Bricks are not normally seen as a sign of age. But walk past Downtown’s Calvary Episcopal Church and the weathered bricks on the church’s north side begin to tell the story of the oldest public building in Memphis still in continuous use.

Danny Ristucci, superintendent of Structural Waterproofing & Restoration LLC, looks at the old bell inside the Calvary Bell Tower, which is being restored by John Pruett Architects and SWR.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The bricks, for the most part are still solid. But some are clearly showing their age.

When architect John Pruett and other church members were at the top of the church bell tower earlier this year, they noticed one of the walls on the parapet was leaning slightly toward the roof.

So last month the scaffolding went up and the church undertook repairs to one of the oldest and original parts of the church that was there before the Shelby County Courthouse when Eugene Magevney was still living in the Magevney House and what is now called Victorian Village was still in the Victorian era. The work should be completed in July.

“The tower was built in 1848 so as you can imagine everything about it is quite old,” Pruett said. “It has served us well but eventually old brick turns back into clay, and mortar turns into sand. Wood framing that’s embedded in those masonry components tends to deteriorate over time.”

The bricks are handmade and were made at a time before modern brick-making methods.

“By and large, the tower is solid and well built. The materials they had to work with at that time, they just didn’t have the technology we have today,” Pruett said. “The brick was softer. The mortar is lime and sand. There’s not Portland cement in there. There’s no reinforcing in there.”

The church hired Structural Waterproofing & Restoration LLC, the Memphis firm that has worked on many of the city’s historic structures from a later time.

“The newer mortars really won’t work when you’re working with restoration because they don’t absorb water quite as fast as the brick,” said Mike Kennedy, SWR’s owner and operator. “We’re using a lime-based mortar, which is what was used originally in the building. We’re having to salvage bricks from the area and tie them into the badly damaged bricks in the bell tower.”

The Calvary Bell Tower is being restored by John Pruett Architects and Structural Waterproofing & Restoration LLC. The tower was built in 1848. 

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The elements took their toll over 164 years.

“Some areas have been exposed to the weather and have had moisture trapped in them for so long that it’s just basically eroded some of the brick toward the parapet and really kind of turned them back to clay,” he said.

Some framing issues involving the woodwork have also surfaced as the bell tower gives up some long-held secrets about the repairs done over the decades.

“The apparatus – when you pull the rope there’s a big wooden wheel and the bell is attached to that – that is all original and all in remarkably good working order,” Pruett said.

For a church with so many architects in the congregation, he said the project hasn’t lacked for expertise.

Architects John Harrison Jones and Charles Shipp worked with Pruett. Robert Silman Associates of Washington is the structural engineer.

“It’s one of those dream projects for an architect because you have no liability and you are working with a good group of people all the way around. Everybody has the best interest of the tower at heart,” Pruett added.

“We feel an obligation to preserve that structure. … It’s our building and we love it and we want to preserve it and we feel an obligation to do that for the community as a whole.”