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Lancaster church's plastic spindles at heart of preservation debate

A dispute over the set of 15 plastic spindles removed last year from the facade of the Lancaster Presbyterian Church is moving to the Village Board.

Preservationists say the church must replace the 1-foot-tall spindles because they are part of the building's historic character.

Church officials say the spindles aren't original to the building, and they would rather spend the replacement cost -- an estimated $4,000 or more -- on something more directly related to the church's mission.

The Village Board on Monday will decide this test of Lancaster's historic preservation laws.

"We want to make every effort to strike a balance between good relations with our neighbors and prudent stewardship of Kingdom resources," said the Rev. Kelly Negus, the church pastor.

A contractor removed the spindles from the church after the 40-year-old decorative objects broke during a repainting project.

The church opted not to replace the cylindrical spindles, but the village's Historic Preservation Commission ruled that they are required to do so under the code that governs Lancaster's historic preservation district.

"We based it on the standards, which we're obligated to uphold," said Michael Meyer, the commission's chairman.

Lancaster Presbyterian Church, at 5461 Broadway, was formed in 1818, and the church sanctuary was built in 1831 after members took a trip through New England to get design ideas, according to a church history. It is the oldest church in Lancaster.

Church leaders last summer hired a contractor to repaint three sides of the sanctuary, caulk holes to make the structure weatherproof and replace two of the steeple's roofs.

The spindles sat in three groups of five set into a long piece of wood trim just above the roof line at the front of the church.

Plastic spindles installed in the 1970s replaced older, wooden spindles of the same size and slightly curved design.

Last summer, when workers tried to scrape paint off the spindles, the spindles began to crumble, said Bill Stortz, chairman of the church's board of trustees.

"We never expected them to break and fall apart," he said.

The workers removed 12 damaged spindles and three that remained intact, and church leaders decided not to install replacements because of the expense involved and the complexity of the task.

Stortz, for example, argued that screwing replacement spindles into the trim would affect the weatherproofing done to the building to prevent leaks.

The church didn't need a building permit from the village for the $15,000 project because church leaders originally didn't intend to make any structural changes to the building.

However, once they decided not to put back the spindles, or to replace them, the church was in violation of Lancaster's historic preservation code, said George Pease, the village code enforcement officer.

Pease issued a letter saying that if the church wanted to keep the spindles off the facade, its leaders must obtain a certificate of appropriateness from the Historic Preservation Commission.

Church officials say they haven't seen any evidence that the wooden spindles were original to the building facade.

"It's just an unresolved question," Negus said.

Stortz said the artisan who produced the newer, plastic spindles was surprised they had lasted this long and that he won't be able to make replacement spindles of the same material.

The Historic Preservation Commission has jurisdiction in this matter because the church is located within the village's historic preservation district.

The commission, which heard the church's position at its April meeting, believes the spindles are part of the church's historic character and need to be replaced. The church has held onto one wooden spindle, and preservationists believe two square nails attached to that spindle indicate it dates to the church's original construction.

The replacement spindles should be made of wood, they argue, and Stortz said he believes the cost of making and installing such spindles could be thousands of dollars.

"It's a diversion of funds from our core mission, which is to teach and preach and save people," he said.

Meyer, the head of the Historic Preservation Commission, said, "We didn't get into whether it's affordable or not. The appeal, however, does have room in it for financial hardship."

The Village Board will hear the church's appeal of the commission's ruling, and church leaders will go along with whatever the board decides, the pastor said. "We're as eager to uphold the values of this historic district as anyone," Negus said. "Let's get some clarification."

email: swatson@buffnews.com