The Sandwich Historic District Committee made history itself this week with a decision to allow synthetic materials to replace wood on one of the town’s most prominent landmarks.
The committee voted to allow First Church of Christ—whose tall, white steeple has graced the village for almost 175 years—to replace much of its wooden facade with a new product that closely resembles wood.
The three “yes” votes were offset by two abstentions. The abstaining members, who spoke against the idea of replacing wood with synthetic materials, did not explain why they were abstaining rather than voting “no.”
Nevertheless, the motion carried, and the committee’s decision could open the door to the petitions of other historic downtown building owners struggling with the costs of repairing, replacing and repainting wooden facades.
Several of the committee members took a firsthand look at First Church during a site visit Friday last week, October 23. They looked at the cracking and peeling planks on the front of the building as well as samples of the solid PVC—polyvinyl chloride—material the church would like to substitute on the church’s face.
“I couldn’t tell the difference when [samples of wood and solid PVC] products were put before me,” committee member Richard R. Alger said at the meeting on Wednesday, October 28. “I guessed, and I guessed wrong.”
William R. Collins, chairman of the historic district committee, said other historic building owners had come before the committee with similar requests but were turned down.
The wood substitute products previous applicants had proposed were made of vinyl, not PVC, Mr. Collins said.
“This is not vinyl; this is PVC, and it’s almost indistinguishable from wood,” he said, adding that replacing antique wood with modern wood, which is “fast-growth, punky and soft” does not help preserve the historic look of a building.
Committee member Ross Vander Pyl disagreed.
“The vinyl, or PVC, never changes,” Mr. Vander Pyl said. “Old boards have a life of their own that PVC will never have.”
Mary E. Foley, the other abstaining committee member, also argued that wood substitutes should not be used on historic buildings.
“I think it is feasible and possible to replace with wood,” Ms. Foley said.
Mark A. Romanowicz, a spokesman for the church, has said the Main Street church has had to repair and repaint parts of its facade every two or three years, which is laborious and costs more than $20,000 each time. Despite these efforts, water is leaking into the interior.
The replacement materials would be used on the belfry, the narthex (the entrance to the building), the column capitals (the crowning scroll-like pieces at the top of the front columns) and the gable (the triangular area above the entranceway), Mr. Romanowicz has said.
The PVC materials the church is proposing would be specially treated to look weathered by a series of “microgrooves” cut into the vinyl siding.
Several of the committee members traveled to Chatham’s Main Street last weekend to look at the historic First United Methodist Church, which now boasts a PVC facade.
“It looked wonderful,” Mr. Collins said.
The members of the committee—formally known as the Sandwich Old King’s Highway Historic District Committee—also consulted with Sarah Korjeff, a historic preservation specialist with the Cape Cod Commission, and looked into other historic boards around the country that have allowed synthetics to replace wood.
In a letter to Mr. Collins, Ms. Korjeff advised the committee to tread carefully.
“Too much new material diminishes the historic integrity of a building, so the board should carefully consider whether replacement is necessary or whether other treatments or repairs could address the issues,” Ms. Korjeff wrote. “Many new materials may not be maintenance-free for long, so it is wise to introduce them slowly and preserve original material wherever possible.”
She also said, however, that in cases where deterioration made repair impossible, manmade replacement materials have been used on the Cape and elsewhere in Massachusetts.
The Falmouth Historic District Commission, for example, recently published guidelines that discourage manmade materials in historic buildings except for trim in cases of extreme exposure, Ms. Korjeff said.
Asked Thursday, October 29, if the Sandwich Historic District Committee’s decision will bring a torrent of new requests for synthetics, Mr. Collins said he was not worried.
“I do not think the decision last night will open any doors down the road, since every decision under the Old King’s Highway Act is unique,” Mr. Collins said.
“In this case, the original method of construction (the boards on the front facade actually invite water intrusion) is the major reason for not using wood, in my view. The inferior quality of modern wood available today makes using wood in that unique example not reasonable. Wood in the 19th century was hard, first-growth material and protected for decades by oil and lead-based paints, no longer used today.”
Mr. Romanowicz said yesterday he was surprised and delighted by the historic committee’s decision.
“It’s great news,” he said. “Now we can concentrate on continuing the sanctuary renovation and making sure the belfry and the steeple are structurally sound.”