First Church Celebrates New Steps Toward Accessibility

By May 31, 2019

It can be a challenge to find ways to make a 1929 building more accessible to people with mobility challenges, and our beautiful Gothic Revival church is no exception. However, thanks to the diligent work of the FUMCFW Accessibility Task Force led by Joan Gaspard with the support of our Board of Trustees, over the past few years these desired improvements have become a reality.

Gaspard, who is a specially appointed member of the Board of Trustees, originally brought the idea of additional handrails and wheelchair accessible seating to the Trustees in 2017, and today you can see the fruits of that very first discussion as evidence of our First Church commitment to accessibility.

Following that initial discussion, architect Daniel Roe, also a member of our Trustees, went to work on plans for addressing these needs brought to light by Gaspard. “I was approached by Larry Ammerman regarding the execution of the idea,” Roe recounts. “I then created the drawings that Scott Tucker Construction (Bill Scott’s company) used to build the spaces.”

These accessibility upgrades, including the wheelchair seating Roe describes, also encompass handrails in the choir loft to provide choir members with mobility challenges safe passage to even the top rows of choir loft seating; handrails affixed to the ends of the pews in the lower balcony to offer help in navigating uneven steps safely; and a specially created section for wheelchairs in the Sanctuary that offers opportunity for people who use wheelchairs to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with their able-bodied companions. Roe says that with these improvements now complete, there is now room in our Sanctuary for one wheelchair in each of the two outboard pews, and space for two in the center (one each side of the camera).

Roe explains that because our new wheelchair spaces intercept two rows of pews, they are designed to offer both easy access for wheelchair users and a place within the congregational seating for wheelchair users and their companions to sit together. With these accessibility improvements now in place, as many as four wheelchairs users can sit more comfortably within the congregational seating, and a brightly-colored edge along the corners of the spaces offer a safety feature that helps prevent tripping over the raised areas.

“It’s so nice for people who use wheelchairs to now be able to sit inside the pew seating rather than having to sit in aisles or across the back of the sanctuary,” remarks Sandy Williams, FUMCFW Director of Operations, “I think it will make a big difference in their experience here and will help them to feel more part of the congregation and worship experience.”

And While We Were At It . . .

Because this construction project required extensive prep work to protect the organ chamber from any airborne dust and debris, Business Administrator Larry Ammerman proposed taking advantage of this two weeks of Sanctuary construction to repair the plaster damage in the Sanctuary caused by both age, aftereffects of recent bell tower repairs, and the resulting cracks and water damage that had occurred over the years.

“What most people don’t realize is that while the interior surfaces of the church appear to be stone, they are really faux finishes to plaster, painted to look like stone,” Williams explains. “Therefore, because plaster is inherently prone to age and moisture related damage such as cracking, crumbling, and water stains, it takes really careful and specific repair to maintain that look and feel of stone.” Williams observes that these kinds of repairs are more works of art, and therefore are much more involved than other kinds of plaster repair.

So, after Williams and Ammerman identified a two-week stretch during which the sanctuary was free of special events (They cleaned it all up on the intervening Sunday for worship) and both work teams were available, these projects began simultaneously. After much research and discussion among Trustees regarding best practices for protecting our pipe organ from any dust or airborne debris, workers installed protective plastic sheeting across the front of the sanctuary over those openings to the organ chamber and anywhere else dust could possibly enter the chamber.

Once the plastic was in place, scaffolding came in to give artisan painters a (relatively) safe surface from which to work. “Please keep Sanctuary workers in your prayers today,” said Peggy Graff, Organist and Associate Director of Music and Worship Arts in an email to the entire staff as this work began, “they are working very carefully, very high up on scaffolding to repair plaster and restore the beautiful finishes of our Sanctuary.”

Over the course of the next two weeks, the construction project in the back and artistic work going on in the front and perimeters of the Sanctuary made this a very busy space. The final result was revealed just ahead of Easter Sunday.

Perhaps the best compliment to the final result of this Sanctuary upgrade is that unless you’re looking for these new and improved features, they’re pretty easy to miss because they blend so well into the natural beauty of our awe-inspiring Sanctuary. However, for those who are looking for more accessible seating and stability for people with mobility challenges — as well as for those with an eye for artistic detail — the completion of these parallel projects is an impressive example of our First Church commitment to caring for our historic building and meeting the needs of those we serve.

Special thanks to our Mobility Task Force led by Joan Gaspard, our Trustees (especially Daniel Roe) and Staff (especially Larry Ammerman, Sandy Williams, and our custodial crew), Scott-Tucker Construction (especially Trustee Bill Scott), and all others whose time, talents, and energy contributed to this remarkable result.

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