Fixing the steeples

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Greene craftsman is known as Maine’s only steeplewright

GREENE – To Bob Hanscom, the steel frames and metal skins of modern steeples have all the warmth of an electric fireplace.

They make a pointy stab at the sky and they keep the rain out, but they lack the woodcraft that once sat atop Maine churches and halls.

It’s a craft that has led Hanscom to invent a job: the steeplewright.

“I’m still the only one I know,” said Hanscom, who has become a kind of one-man institution.

He knows of steeplejacks, but most, as he knows them, are handyman. He’s a professional.

After more than 20 years on the job, Hanscom has repaired, restored or replaced about 50 steeples across Maine. He maintains a two-year backlog of jobs.

Why does he seem to attract so much of this niche market? There are a couple of reasons, said Hanscom.

First is the height.

“They’re hard to get to,” he said. “That takes care of half the competition.”

And he works alone. He has no crew and little overhead, often anchoring his sailboat near coastal jobs to live cheaply.

“I don’t subcontract for anything, except for the crane,” he said.

He makes his steeples rugged, designing repairs so they will endure wind, rain and pigeons.

Not one of his steeples has ever fallen.

“I’ve never lost anything and I don’t intend to now,” he said, gazing at the eight columns of 8- by 8-inch beams inside his current project, the Castine Historical Society steeple.

Sections of the steeple sat on the floor of his Greene workshop, where Hanscom plans to spend his winter restoring the century-old structure.

It’s a routine the 55-year-old carpenter has taken years to develop.

No fear of heights

Hanscom didn’t plan to be a steeplewright.

In the late 1970s, he had a partner and built houses. That job proved boring, though.

“You’ve built one, you’ve built them all,” Hanscom said. “It’s foundation, walls and Sheetrock.”

By the early 1980s, he left houses to work as a shipfitter at Bath Iron Works. That didn’t last long, though.

In 1984, the Turner Village Church wanted to repair its steeple. Hanscom, who attended services there, said he could do it for less money than church leaders had planned.

The job went well. It led to more work. Slowly, the business grew.

“I’ve always had an open-door policy,” he said, inviting the groups who hire him into his shop any time.

“I do it the right way,” he said. “I do what I tell people I’ll do.”

And he has never been bored.

In some cases, he repairs steeples where they sit. Unafraid of heights, Hanscom sometimes climbs around his steeples with nothing to hold him but a pair of safety straps. Other times, he hires a crane to lift him aloft in a metal bucket that he designed himself, made tall and thin to let him get close to the sides of a steeple without damaging it.

For bigger repairs, he disassembles the steeples and hauls them home to his shop.

Each one is different.

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Living steeples

He has replaced steeples in Durham and Bowdoinham. He repaired the cupola atop the main building at Kents Hill School, covering the exterior with a heavy-grade white aluminum.

His work can be seen above the treetops in almost every town along the Maine coast.

“That’s where the money is,” Hanscom said. His favorite steeple overlooks the Kennebec River.

In Richmond, he created an all-new steeple for the former Congregational Church. The original was razed decades earlier, so Hanscom used an old photo as a reference for designing the new one, which he built in his shop.

As townspeople watched, he led the crane that lowered the new steeple onto the church building in 2001.

“I used to get nervous the night before,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep. I’d run through a checklist. I’d try to imagine everything that could go wrong.”

He never sees the people with the cameras. He’s too busy, he said.

Maybe that’s because each steeple is a little bit alive.

“They are like trees,” he said. “They swing. They move. They need roots.”

That’s where most of the steeples need his help.

Whenever he takes his first look at a steeple, he brings along a small augur to test the beams that hold each one aloft. Often they look good on the outside but are rotten inside.

He fixes them, replacing the rotten wood with his favorite, pressure-treated southern yellow pine.

And when he’s done, he glues a business card to the hatch that leads back down to the ground.

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