Over the 100 years since Washington Memorial Chapel was completed, thousands of hymns, songs and psalms have been sung during the Episcopal worship services held there.
But from the standpoint of preserving and protecting the structure over time, congregants probably should have been singing “Rain, Rain, Go Away!”
The experts at Frens and Frens Restoration Architects, however, are working to ensure that water in the building is confined to the baptismal font where it belongs.
Dale Frens, owner of the firm, describes the work currently being done: “The Washington Memorial Chapel project, like much of our work, begins with an assessment, which then leads to a strategy for preservation.”
Evaluating this landmark of Valley Forge from an architectural standpoint revealed a number of surprises for Frens and his crew. Historical research revealed various plans for the building, erected to honor the fortitude and courage of General Washington and the Continental Army.
They accessed more than 150 design drawings and renderings for the chapel, housed in the archives of the University of Pennsylvania.
“What’s actually there today is just the tip of the iceberg of what was considered to be built,” Frens says. “We saw a reference to an intended museum and Patriots’ Hall, which was to be something grand and gothic tied into the side of the sanctuary.”
Close examination of the site itself also spoke of its unique backstory.
“We thought the chapel was really built more like a turn-of-the-twentieth-century college building would be built. But it turned out, it was built more like a farmhouse, with stone-bearing walls and wood framing. It looked like something that it turned out it wasn’t. It was actually simpler construction than we thought.”
The structure, despite its age, has endured a century of Montgomery County winters and summers surprisingly well. “The fundamental materials are incredibly durable and beautiful,” Frens comments. “The granite comes from quarries along the Delaware River in North Philadelphia. And it’s just a very, very durable stone; there’s not a bit of stone deterioration anywhere in the whole complex.”
The issue with rainwater has resulted from a combination of period building materials and techniques.
“One of the repeated issues that show up in gothic revival buildings is that the designers worked hard to make sure that from the ground, metal edges on the cornices were not visible. So they used sheet metal gutter liners but slotted them into a hand-sawn groove, called a curf, rather than running them out to the edge. Those curfs, it turns out, are very vulnerable because the only way to seal it is with caulk. Once caulk’s adhesion fails, it just draws in water.”
The inability of caulk to endure has enabled precipitation to seep into the eaves of the right side sanctuary and the cloister as well. Frens identifies one of the sources: “That’s the most common directions nor’easters come from. It’s no surprise that that’s where the greatest concentration of water damage is.”
The design plans that were cancelled along the way have also become an issue. The exterior of the sanctuary – where Patriots’ Hall was supposed to connect – was temporarily covered in stucco to facilitate its eventual addition. Unbuilt and without protective stone cladding, the elements penetrated.
The chapel’s scope of work also includes a thorough cleaning. Iron stains and a salt-powder build-up are being carefully removed, and once complete, the building should gleam. In addition, the 102-foot bell tower is also being evaluated as a source of moisture inside the structure.
Despite his daily close-up view of Washington Memorial Chapel, where preservation work depends on measuring in millimeters and cleansing with tiny brushes, the significance of the site isn’t lost on Frens.
“I love that we’ve been here through the change of seasons,” he says. “I’ve seen this stunning exterior as fall was fading and the setting sun bathed it in red and bronze color. And then brown-gray. And now the gray of winter. It’s wonderful to come to work every day and walk up to the front doors of the chapel and see the arch down below and the rolling hills.
“This is a very special place,” he concludes.
The ongoing preservation and restoration of Washington Memorial Chapel depends heavily on donations. If you would like to contribute to the stewardship of this Valley Forge icon, see details here.