Commission rules cupola at former St. John Cantius church must be reinstalled

The Northampton Historical Commission has rejected a request from a Holyoke company to permanently remove the cupola that once sat atop St. John Cantius church. The cupola has been removed for repairs and will now need to be reinstalled.

The Northampton Historical Commission has rejected a request from a Holyoke company to permanently remove the cupola that once sat atop St. John Cantius church. The cupola has been removed for repairs and will now need to be reinstalled. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 04-02-2024 2:34 PM

Modified: 04-02-2024 4:48 PM


NORTHAMPTON — A guano-ridden cupola on the former St. John Cantius church must be restored, the Northampton Historical Commission recently ruled, denying a request from the building’s owner to have it permanently removed.

The church building, built in 1913 and located on Hawley Street, has been closed since 2010 and was purchased by the O’Connell Development Group of Holyoke with the intention of turning it into a restaurant. Those plans were abandoned during the pandemic and the group now intends to convert the property into multifamily housing.

Vice President Sarah Stine said the church’s cupola, a dome-like structure on top of one of the church buildings, had to be permanently removed, not least because of its corrosion by various animal droppings.

“It also was full of guano, bat and pigeon guano. We believe that had to be cleaned out,” Stine said. “Once that was cleaned out, we were able to more fully evaluate the structure and how the cupola was tied into the building. And it turns out it was not really tied into the building.”

Additionally, the cupola was not properly attached to the building, with the framing of the structure deteriorated by animals, Stine said, noting that merely placing one’s hand on top of the cupola would cause it to move 3-4 inches.

“We had our structural engineer come out and take a look, and it was determined that the cupola couldn’t be repaired in place, and it couldn’t really stay without that scaffolding safely,” she said. “There was extensive metal damage, more than we had anticipated. However, the major issue is that the structure of the cupola is not sufficient and that the building itself would need to be reinforced, the trusses within the main structure of the building, in order to support the cupola per current codes.”

Though the cupola was originally set to be restored, its condition forced O’Connell group to remove it last November, and the firm subsequently submitted a formal request that the structure be permanently removed.

The Historical Commission, however, denied that request last month, saying that the cupola is a “character defining feature” of the historic church, and therefore needed to be restored.

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“We’re in the realm of preservation law here,” said commission member Steven Moga. “The cupola is a character defining feature, and we should deny the request to permanently remove it from the church.”

Moga acknowledged the technical and financial difficulties associated with restoring the cupola, but said the allotted time to undergo the restoration process was up to five years.

“Preservation is expensive. There are unexpected contingencies,” he said. “It’s challenging, but there is a community value in retaining this connection, this visual connection to the past.”

O’Connell’s plans for the 10 Hawley St. building involve converting the former church into 10 units of market-rate housing. The City Council in the fall of 2022 authorized spending $500,000 in Community Preservation Act funds, a decision that came several months of deliberation by city bodies who determined that preserving the church — built more than 100 years ago by Polish immigrants — was worth it even if it meant giving taxpayer money directly to a private owner.

The money was earmarked to repair the exterior masonry envelope and prevent further water seepage, but it also came with one string attached — a permanent historic preservation restriction, which grants the Historical Commission the authority to approve any further work as long as the church remains standing. O’Connell had initially proposed a full demolition.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.