Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

May 17, 2007

Heinz Chapel spire evaluated

A unique trio of experts with training in engineering and architecture gave the spire atop the Heinz Memorial Chapel an inch-by-inch analysis last week.

Armed with climbing gear, cameras and tape measures, workers from the Ithaca, N.Y.-based Vertical Access examined each solder joint, fastener and piece of bracing over the course of three days, photographically documenting what they saw as they inched their way upward.

Tugging, tapping and testing their way to the top — 256 feet above the ground — the climbers offered a play-by-play narrative as they filmed. Describing problems such as missing fasteners or damaged seams where they observed them, the climbers streamed live video to observers safely posted on folding chairs in the chapel below. Peering intently into a video monitor with their feet on the ground, an architect and structural engineer were able to communicate via two-way radio with the climbers to ask questions or request a closer look from their command post near the chancel.

“We saw things that probably haven’t been seen since they erected the thing,” said Pat Gibbons, the chapel director.

The work is part of a three-part study that also assesses the condition of the chapel’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and its towering stained glass windows. The Heinz Endowments granted $250,000 last year to pinpoint the chapel’s capital improvement needs.

Given as a gift to the University by the Heinz family, the building was dedicated in 1938 as a memorial to Anna Margaretta Heinz and her son Henry John Heinz, founder of the H.J. Heinz Co.

The painstaking inspection was prompted by a 2000 preservation study that recommended a closer look to determine the condition of what is more properly called a fleche, a slender spire that sits at the ridge above a structure’s nave and transept. An expert is to undertake the third part of the study — a close-up exterior exam of the windows — this summer. The final report is expected by September, Gibbons estimated.

While she’s certain that the needed preservation work will exceed the money that’s immediately available, once cost figures are received Gibbons said the attention can turn toward finding funding for the fixes.

She said the Heinz Endowments and the University have shared the cost of major maintenance in the past. Since the chapel is among the most visible of the University’s irreplaceable treasures, plans also are in the works to tie chapel repairs into the University’s capital campaign.

As for the fleche, initial indications have shown less damage than anticipated in some areas, more in others. “It’s been sitting up there 70 years, it’s ready for some work,” Gibbons said, adding that aside from some painting and installation of pigeon screening done in the 1980s, no major work on the fleche has been done in recent decades.

Documentation of all damage the climbers observed is being mapped on detailed drawings from which cost estimates for repair will be gathered.

“At this point in time we really don’t have a financial handle on what the fleche repair could be,” Gibbons said. She added that once estimates are made, the chapel staff will be better able to plan for the long-term welfare of the Gothic structure.

Only the sharpest of observers will note something missing from the fleche. Two of the 16 fanciful grotesque figures that look outward from on high are gone.

One has been missing from its perch for several years. “George,” as chapel staffers fondly have christened it, fell onto the rooftop, denting his hindquarters in the process. He was rescued and now is kept in a secure undisclosed location, although he occasionally has accompanied Gibbons on visits to Heinz Endowment decision makers.

Gibbons jokes that George now has a mate. A second grotesque (they can’t be called gargoyles because they don’t divert water) had become loose and was brought down during the inspection to save it from falling unexpectedly.

Losing one’s grip after 70 years is not entirely a shock, considering the wind and elements to which the grotesques are exposed. Still, the solder joints on the remaining 14 have managed to hold strong, Gibbons said. George and his mate will keep company in the custody of chapel staff until they can be returned to their places when maintenance is done, Gibbons said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Leave a Reply