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Nashville Scene Born Again

Old church saved from bugs and fungus

By Walter Jowers

OCTOBER 18, 1999:  In the 1850s, wife Brenda's forebears, along with four other families, founded a little Methodist church in what was then the tiny town of Buford's Bridge, S.C. They built as plain a wood-frame building as you'll ever see, with simple fluted columns holding up the front porch roof. The 12 pointy-topped windows make the building Gothic in style--and it's about as low Gothic as Gothic can get.

The walls, floors, and ceilings were clad with native wood, inside and out. In the South Carolina midlands, you can dig for days and never find a rock, so this house, like so many old South Carolina houses, was built on homemade brick piers.

The one unusual thing about this plain-as-can-be church house: Its skeleton was a timber frame, put together with mortise-and-tenon joints and wood pegs. It's not unusual to find timber framing up in New England, but it's mighty rare in South Carolina farm country.

The founders named the church Mizpah, which means, "May God watch between us when we are apart." Nobody alive knows why, in 1865, Sherman's forces burned down every building in Buford's Bridge except for the Mizpah church. If I had to guess, I'd say the head torch guy recognized the Yankeefied carpentry, got a little homesick, and decided to go off and burn something else.

Except for painting and spot repairs, the church stood essentially unchanged until about three years ago, when the church members decided they had to do something about the raggedy exterior shutters.

The church hired a member of one of the founding families to tackle the shutter work. While he was taking the old shutters down, he noticed a little rotten spot on an inside corner board. So he took the board off, to get a little better look at the wall framing. He saw rot and termite damage in the framing, so he took off another board, and another board. Pretty soon, he was numbering boards so he could keep track of their original locations, and he was pulling them off by the dozen.

The old church was rotten. The bottom third of the wall framing was gone, eaten up by termites and fungus. The only thing holding the church up was the siding.

There are a couple of lessons here. Lesson one: People can come and go through a house for a long time and miss big problems. I can't tell you how many times people have called me and co-inspector Rick to look at a house, because they're worried about little things like a hairline crack in a ceiling, or a teaspoonful of water in the basement. More often than not, we find other, bigger problems. A couple of years ago, a friend asked me to help him figure out how water was getting into his basement. I couldn't find the water source, but I did notice that his front foundation wall was cracked. He ended up with an earth mover digging up his front yard and a wall-rebuilding crew moving into his house for a few days. The repairs ended up costing as much as a car.

Lesson two: Sometimes, even if you know the telltale signs of trouble, trouble can go unnoticed. For instance, if the termites that ate up the old church did most of their work a long time ago, and there were no signs of termites (such as swarmers or mud tubes), nobody would have found the termite damage without taking the walls apart. The first sign of trouble would have been the big cracking sound that accompanied the building collapse. About 10 years ago, I stripped all the siding and wallboard off the two-story porch on the back of my house. Once I had the porch down to its skeleton, I realized that the whole structure was held up by one big nail. One guy with a carelessly placed crowbar could've collapsed the whole thing.

Meanwhile, back at Mizpah: The shutter job ultimately led to the whole church being lifted up on a rack of 50-foot-long steel beams, which were run through the window openings. Masons rebuilt the foundation. Lumbermen felled and sawed native trees to replace the rotten wood. A crew of timber-framing experts came down from New Hampshire and rebuilt the rotten parts of the roof, wall, and floor framing. Workers tweaked the old church as close to square and plumb as they could get it, then lowered it onto the new foundation.

Once the old church had settled down onto its new supports, the workers found that the original windows didn't fit. They had to trim every sash carefully and recut the old glass to get the windows back into their openings.

The story of this little church is the best example I know of what Clem Labine, my former boss at Old-House Journal, called "the mushroom factor." By the time the work's finished--next fall if all goes well--what started out as a little shutter-fixing job will have mushroomed into a huge undertaking, consuming over $250,000 and countless volunteer hours.

To their everlasting credit, the folks at Mizpah did the job right. With any luck, the little church ought to stand for another 140 years.

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