Tabernacle Requires More Fixes; Architects Call for a New Roof


The bill to restore the Tabernacle was supposed to run just $1 million and cover the basics: new stained-glass windows, re-flashing the roof and a serious scrape-and-paint job of the rusting iron structure.

But three years after mounting an ambitious fund-raising campaign to pay for the project and start up an additional endowment fund worth $1 million, leaders in the Camp Ground now say they need almost twice the money to do the job right.

Like most anyone overseeing an old house renovation project, the folks in charge of saving the 124-year-old landmark in Oak Bluffs say they ran into unexpected problems that can't go unnoticed - cement footings for the structure and a new roof, for example.

The new design and restoration plans, drawn up by a Providence architect, also call for reviving original historical elements of the Tabernacle, including a zinc-coated copper roof on the cupola and 32 vintage pendant lights.

But the news that the Tabernacle Restoration Fund is looking for another $1.9 million to pay for the expanded project has spawned two camps in the Camp Ground.

Proponents say the work and the costs are justified, even worth going to the bank to borrow the money to finish the project in one swoop.

"The first phase was a $2 million campaign, and we thought it was enough," said Russ Dagnall, president of the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association board. "But the job grew as we went along ... We can't stop. We have to complete the job. It's more important than [the fact] that we didn't do it right the first time."

But within the bounds of this historic enclave, some voices appears to be rising up in opposition.

"We people in the Camp Ground cannot come up with that kind of money anymore," said Bob Fuller, who has owned a house on Trinity Circle for 35 years. "We did it the first time, the whole family did."

It is understood that some residents are now circulating a petition that calls on the association's 21-member board to re-consider the plans. "This is pulling the whole community apart," said one Camp Ground resident, who asked not to be named.

Indeed, the Tabernacle issue has made some people with strong views about the cost and payment plans fearful of speaking publicly.

But Ralph Martell, a seasonal and weekend resident who lives in the house his grandmother bought back in the early 1940s, is not afraid to voice his opposition.

"The way I look at it, they've got themselves in over their head," he said. "I'm not slamming these people. They put their hearts into it, but I don't think they're getting the right answers."

Mr. Dagnall and Douglas West, the association vice-president and the man in charge of the new fund raising effort, couldn't disagree more. Both men say they have hired the experts needed to guide them in how to restore the Tabernacle.

Structural engineers from Rhode Island and the Providence architectural firm - Durkee, Brown, Viveiros & Werenfels - came on the scene in the fall of 2001 and zeroed in on the shaky foundation of the Tabernacle.

‘When they dug down, they saw it wasn't really standing on anything," said Mr. Dagnall.

The concern, explained principal architect Martha Werenfels, was that the Tabernacle was vulnerable to high winds from a coastal storm. "They determined it was the turning of the structure and the uplift. Like an umbrella, this thing could become airborne," said Ms. Werenfels, who was on site Wednesday meeting with the building committee.

The cost of pouring new footings for the load-bearing iron columns came to $400,000. The work was done in the spring of 2002, digging up the base and fastening the legs of the Tabernacle to huge concrete blocks.

"That was a $400,000 project we hadn't counted on," said Mr. Dagnall.

Of the $1.8 million raised in the campaign over the last three years, only $480,000 remains in the coffers.

Mr. Dagnall can recite the restoration achievements like they were a punch list. They include the Steinway grand piano, a new sound system, electrical wiring upgrades, new stained-glass in the upper clerestory, new sidewalls on the backstage and the concrete footings.

Two months ago, the architects opened four bids for the rest of the work. The low bid came in at $1.9 million.

With that money, the Tabernacle would see its 70-year-old asbestos roof pulled off and replaced by 9,500 square feet of a concrete material which is about half the weight and painted a burgundy red color. Cost for that job alone will run over $600,000.

Planners had originally thought the Tabernacle could make do with the old roof, but Ms. Werenfels is convinced there is not much life left in the roofing, covered with moss in many places.

With the roof gone, it will make it easier for workers to sandblast and paint the wrought iron spines and columns, said Mr. Dagnall.

The new plans also call for replacing the cross - which is internally lit - with a new carbon-fiber cross illuminated externally with fiber optic lights. Gone will be the wires and cables that hold the present cross in place, said Mr. Dagnall.

The architect studied old photographs of the Tabernacle and incorporated that information into her design for the restoration - bringing back the louvers on the cupola and a wrought iron cresting over the entry pavilion.

"We have developed a comprehensive plan that we all have a lot of confidence in," said Mr. West in a telephone interview from his office in Washington, DC. "It's really important for everyone to realize that the Tabernacle is an Island treasure."

Mr. Dagnall said the construction and repair work cannot happen piecemeal. "We need to go to the banks and say we want to borrow the money and here's our repayment plan. We should not try to do this work as the money comes," he said.

Mr. West will unveil a detailed plan in October for how to fund the expanded project. Meanwhile, he is already stressing the Tabernacle's economic significance to the Island and its role in attracting visitors.

But what about the challenge of hitting up donors who already gave once?

"Certainly, it's not the first effort of this sort that's had to go back a second time. It's never something you like to do, but given the realities, it's essential we have substantial support from people in the Campground," said Mr. West.

Mr. Dagnall is a little more apologetic. "Once we got into all this stuff, we realized how naive we'd been. We said, ‘Let's get an architect that specializes in this,'" he said. "Logically, we should have done that way back in the beginning."