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    Friday, July 19, 2024

    OPINION: First Congregational Church steeple was deemed unstable in 1851

    I was startled when I saw an email Friday morning with a copy of a letter dated Oct. 12, 1851, addressed to the leaders of New London’s First Congregational Church, warning them the steeple tower of their brand new church was unstable.

    In the letter, the architect of the church, Lepold Eidlitz, wrote gravely that the only sure remedy was to “take down the whole of the steeple and tower and have it rebuilt by a more competent and reliable person than your general contractor.”

    Eidlitz said in his letter that he had consulted about the problems with the construction of the New London church, and ways to correct them, with famed New York architect Richard Upjohn, who designed Trinity Church.

    Wow, I thought, as I read Eidlitz’s letter, since work was already beginning in earnest Friday morning to get to the bottom of how the soaring church steeple came to so suddenly and unexpectedly fall into itself Thursday afternoon.

    Turns out, the original architect was apparently worried about something like that from the time the church was first built. I presume the tower was never taken down and rebuilt, as the architects suggested at the time.

    The 1851 letter came my way through an email chain that started with Tanya Cutolo, the New London office manager of the Hamden-based architecture and engineering firm Silver Petrucelli & Associates.

    It turns out, I later learned, modern church leaders hired Silver Petrucelli & Associates in 2010 to determine whether the building was structurally sound, and the firm issued a report saying that it was, according to the Rev. Cathy Zall, co-pastor of the First Congregational Church, which sold the building in 2015 to Engaging Ministries.

    Since Silver Petrucelli did a report on the structure less than 15 years ago, that would seem to explain why the architect in the firm’s New London office so quickly produced a 173-year-old letter about the inferior construction of the church steeple on the very same day it collapsed.

    It raises a lot of questions about how the firm came to conclude, in 2010, the tower was structurally sound when it likely had in its possession a proverbial smoking gun, the architect’s letter, with its dire warning about the quality of the original construction.

    I first started leaving messages, which were unreturned, for Cutolo Friday morning, because I wanted to find out where she found the letter and what else might be in those files. It was certainly not turning up in a Google search.

    As the day wore on, after learning about the 2010 report, I also began to leave specific messages for principals of the firm, David Petrucelli, who Zall told me directed the 2010 assessment, and David Stein.

    A marketing director for the firm told me someone would call back. No one did.

    Maybe there is a good answer for how the firm came to conclude, despite the stern warnings from famed architects Eidlitz and Upjohn, that the tower structure at First Congregational Church was actually OK in 2010.

    Maybe the answer involves repairs less stringent than Eidlitz and Upjohn recommended, a solution the modern engineers found had worked.

    They apparently weren’t prepared to share that or any other answer with me Friday. I would sure like to see a copy of their 2010 report. I assume the church’s copy is buried under all that rubble.

    The firm better prepare to answer questions from the new owners, their insurance company, if they have one, and the city, which is devoting an enormous of amount of money and resources on this catastrophe.

    They need to provide some answers to someone and explain how they found the building structurally sound less than 15 years before it inexplicably collapsed.

    In reading Eidlitz’s letter, there was no mistaking the problems with the main tower of the church.

    The letter opens by saying the walls of the tower had parted in several places, because of defective masonry and lack of sufficient “bonds” in the walls. They “succeeded in staying the progress of the parting of the walls” with an “iron anchor.”

    But he went on to explain the only sure remedy was to take down the whole tower and steeple and rebuild them properly.

    I wonder if he could have imagined then, as he contemplated what he described as shoddy construction, that the whole thing, on some random January afternoon in 2024, might come tumbling down in a matter of seconds.

    Maybe he did. Maybe he would be surprised it took so long.

    This is the opinion of David Collins.


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