Thorsby treasure threatened

Published 10:00 pm Thursday, January 19, 2012

Thorsby's Helen Jenkins Chapel was recently found to have extensive termite damage. The building has since been closed to all visitors.

People out and about in Thorsby would never suspect it but Helen Jenkins Chapel, a landmark of the town, is under serious threat.

The century-old church, founded by Swedish immigrants, stands as stately as ever from its perch over Thorsby High School, but a silent and undetected menace has slowly eaten away at the building’s insides.

Enginner Dwight Austin found significant termite damage in a column that supports the chapel's steeple. Austin said the column could fail at any moment.

Over the decades, termites have damaged much of the building, including a column that supports the church’s steeple. Much of the decay is hidden — behind wood trim, inside walls or underneath the floor — but no less dangerous.

The discovery forced town leaders to close the church indefinitely and go to work on finding a way to preserve the special sanctuary.

“It’s a sad, sad situation,” said Tracia Bussey, chairwoman of the Thorsby Historical Preservation Committee. “It’s one of the very few historical buildings we have in town that reflect our Scandinavian history and heritage. It’s been an icon for the whole town.”

Mayor Dearl Hilyer is reaching out to communities who have had similar struggles to save historical buildings.

“Before we make any decision, we are going to gather all the facts we can,” Hilyer said.

The town learned about the damage last month when an engineer was brought in to look at the floors, which had dropped as much as 4.5 inches in one corner.

“We knew in the corners it had dropped, you could see it and feel it,” Hilyer said. “We figured the smartest thing to do was to get an engineer in and go through the building.”

Thorsby had gotten a $5,000 grant to repair the floor, but the engineer, Dwight Austin of Austin Engineering, LLC, soon found bigger problems.

His inspection showed that the steeple column could fail any moment and that floor settling was prevalent throughout the building.

The termite damage in the column was found by removing a trim board that covered the beam, Hilyer said.

The church was built by a congregation of Norwegian Lutherans in 1903 and is noted for it's unique architecture.

More decay caused by termites was found in other beams and the floor. Several sizable termite tubes were noted along the building’s foundation too.

Austin designed a fix to secure the steeple using a concrete base and steel beams, but that would only address one problem. In his report, Austin wrote that given the known termite damage, “one can expect to uncover more decayed members as repairs are implemented.”

The building’s age alone has caused some problems. The engineer recommended that gutters be added to slow future foundation settling and reshape the ground outside the church to move water away from it.

Councilman Marvin Crumpton and Town Engineer Calvin Cassidy also inspected the building and found damage in places that Austin didn’t.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, Crumpton said the building might look beautiful from the outside but “what’s hidden is the scary part.”

Hilyer and members of the Thorsby Historical Preservation Committee are discussing what the town can do, including how to raise money for repairs.

“I think it’s agreed across the board that we have to save it some way or somehow,” Bussey said.

But before doing that, the town must completely understand to what extent repairs are needed and how much it would cost. Grant money will likely be needed to help with renovations or reconstruction, Bussey said.

“We are committed to raising the funds somewhere to get it done,” Bussey said. “It’s too big of a loss to settle for.”

Norwegian Lutherans built the church in 1903. Since then, ownership of it has switched hands many times.

The building was then sold to the town’s Congregational Church, and it continued to serve as a sanctuary through the early 1960s. The chapel was named after Helen Jenkins, a former school principal.

In the early ‘60s, the building was sold once more, this time to the Masons. It became the Thorsby Masonic Lodge until the building was donated to the town in the late 1980s.

The town allowed the Chilton County Board of Education to use the building as a band room for Thorsby High until 1997.

Since then, the building has been used for many town events and other events, like weddings, receptions and family reunions.

“The building was used for so many different things,” Bussey said. “We feel like everyone in the area will want to contribute in some way. It’s going to be a challenge (though).”