Historical Timber Frame Restoration

St. George's Anglican Round Church

1997 Winner of The People's Choice Award, Historical Category from The Timber Framers Guild of North America

Timber Framed - Dome gets lowered into place Acorn Timber Frames (now TimberhArt Woodworks) won their award from the Timber Framers Guild for the restoration of the 44.2 ton timber frame dome, which was destroyed by fire, on top of Saint George's Anglican Round Church in Halifax Nova Scotia Canada. Once again, the weathervane erected to commemorate the sighting of Halley's comet in 1835 tops the gilded cupola that soars 80' above the street. The 12' cupola sits atop a 46' twelve-spoked dome, which in turn, crowns the 60' diameter cathedral-ceiling church. The simple but elegant interior design with its three balconies are now restored.

The original church was completed in 1801 most likely by shipwrights from the Royal Navy. In 1994, the strength of the timber frame structure, the congregation, and the community all were tested when a fire started by children in the basement shot out through the roof and destroyed thirty percent of the structure, including the 46' dome roof. In the illustration, the shaded area of the cross-section indicates what was destroyed by fire. The rest of the building suffered only smoke and water damage.


As the structure was a timber frame, the church did not burn to the ground. The charring penetrated the lower posts and girts to a depth of 1.5" or less, and parts of the walls were declared sound. A team of architects, engineers, contractors, and Acorn Timber Frames (now TimberhArt Woodworks) as well as other Nova Scotian craftspeople worked in close consultation with heritage groups, historians and the Church's congregation. The challenge was to restore the Church similar to its original designwhile meeting modern day building codes.
 
Timber Framing - Dark area represents the burnt out zone to be replaced

Examination & Redesign

With this aim in mind, we began studying the various sketches and studies that had been done over the years, including those from students of local art colleges and technical universities. Charred remains of the dome roof were examined for dimensions, joinery and design. In timber framing, knowledge is passed down hand to hand. Examining a timber frame of this magnitude and complexity, created centuries before by timberwrights/shipwrights, was revealing, tantalizing and left lots of room to wonder and puzzle about the question, "How did they do this and why this way?"

Sourcing Materials

When timber framer Daniel Reagan of Acorn Timber Frames (now TimberhArt Woodworks) went searching for the heavy timbers to rebuild the church, he spent a lot of time climbing trees. He was able to find enough #1 pine in Nova Scotia for all the timber. When small wood lot owners were asked for their crooked trees, they looked at us with small smiles and shook their head until we explained that the trees were for a dome roof. Since the province is windy, we were able to locate the ninety naturally-curved timbers.

When we told Rev. Gary Thorne that the timber needed for the spoke girt to support the 40 ton dome was coming from a place called Hell's Gate, he laughed and said, "We believe in transformation." This timber, 11 x 14", 46' long and over 195 years old, was a seedling when the original church was completed. Too long for any sawmill in the province, it was milled in the woods with an Alaskan chainsaw mill.


Timber Framing - Challenging work ahead A crew of four timber framers were on site for the summer, repairing the existing timber frame structure. Two posts (32' high at the front entrance) were replaced,and other posts with varying amounts of damage were spliced into and repaired. Some repairs and reinforcing were required for the first balcony, while the top balcony into which the new dome would tie, was totally replaced.Back at the shop, an hour's drive away, the estimated 2,200 hours of joinery for the dome roof was under way.

All of the timbers were pre-cut and fitted in the shop before being shipped to the city for assembly. In order to meet the tolerances required (1/32"), a lofting deck was constructed with the construction lines of the 46' dome laid out, similar to a sailmaker's loft. A model of two spoke sections of the roof was built on the lofting deck. Using 1" boards and string, we determined the different curvatures for the purlins.

The circular dome, which consists of twelve spokes with tusk tenon connecting girts, demanded tight tolerances. Just being out 1/16 of an inch a few times would mean the last section would not fit. Some steel (all stainless) was used in the structure. However, it was all routered in to fit flush and designed to be tightened as required.


As a crew was assembling the 46' dome rafter (with 35 different joint connections into the spoke girt) at the beamery, another crew was on site pre-assembling the 17' posts on the other spoke rafter bents. (We had to invent some names for the many pieces!) The only place to pre-assemble them was in the sloped church courtyard on top of the temporary concrete piers. The spoke bents were then stacked 15' high in two piles on the lawn of the house next door! Then the primary 46' bent was assembled and raised. The other bents were craned in one at a time until the last one was snugged into place on the first try. (Thank you to those who watch over timberwrights!) Timber Framing  - "The crew that can do"

Saint George's Rises Again

The day of the raising dawned sunny with low winds (we needed 15 knots or less). The raising of the 44.2 ton dome roof was wondrous enough that many people took time off from work and school to witness it. Three sling points down to six slings went through the roof and hooked onto steel girders set underneath the spoke girts. As the dome lifted up, a hush fell over the crowd, and intakes of breath spoke both wonderment and prayers. The roof fit within 1" of the circumference of the eccentric walls, which had changed over time and had been warped by the intense heat of the fire.

Time Capsule

After the dome was in place, the cupola, with its weathervane was installed. Photos of the builders and others involved in the restoration were placed within a time capsule on the weathervane. Replaced as well were other items from the original installation, including a rolled piece of newspaper describing the prices of goods and the arrival of merchant ships in the port of Halifax.


An Enriching Experience For All

We love our trade, and not simply to earn a living and to work with wood, which we both enjoy very much. Our lives are enriched by getting to know the people for whom we build. In the case of Saint George's, we attended church services, and invited members of the congregation to our beamery to view the process and to the woods to see the selecting of trees. The oak "tree nails" that would peg the structure were blessed by Rev. Thorne. Then the parishioners and all those involved in the restoration were invited to sign the pegs. The children joined in by decorating the posts, which would later be encased, with pictures of Saint George and the Dragon.


Throughout the process of restoring Saint George's Church, the rich history of timber framing, forged by the skilled craftsman of two centuries ago, was uncovered for us to study and to learn. Many timber frames standing today are centuries old, and they are testimony to this most durable and versatile form of building. It was a real honour to rebuild a church with the restoration team and all the Nova Scotian craftspeople involved and to continue the tradition of timber joineryfrom yesteryear.
Donations for the restoration may be sent to:

Saint George's Restoration
2222 Brunswick Street
Halifax, Nova Scotia Canada B3K 2Z3

Timber Framing  - Driving a ceremonial peg

Left: Ceremonial pegging of the first bent performed by Bekah Regan. The peg was signed by the daughter of Mary and Edward Wood, who were married at Saint George's in 1904.

Right: Assembling the 46-footer on the lofting deck: Thirty-five joint connections are in this one timber, part of an eight-foot curved rafter.

Timber Framing - Dan works away while daughter Bekah looks on

The Details
Owner: Saint George's Anglican Church
Timber Frame Company: Acorn Timber Frames Ltd. (now TimberhArt Woodworks)
Structural Engineers:
Dome and Belfry:
Malcom Pinto Engineering Ltd.
Lower Structure Restoration:
Brandy's MacBride Richardson Engineering Ltd.
Timber Frame Design:
Malcolm Pinto Engineering, Acorn Timber Frames Ltd.
Architects:
Fower Bauld Mitchell Architects Ltd., Mettam Group Architects Ltd.
Contractor:
Hanscomb Consultants Inc.
Cranes:
Pre-Assembly:
Owen Keddy's Crane Ltd.
Installation of Dome Roof:
Sagadore Cranes Ltd.
Location:
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Celebrating the 15th anniversary of the restoration of this historic church in Halifax.

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TimberhArt Woodworks (formerly Acorn Timber Frames)
L. Daniel and Kimberley Reagan
195 Fuller Rd., Hantsport NS B0P 1P0
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