The oldest wooden building in San Luis Obispo got a rooftop trim Monday with the razing of the St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church bell tower.
With temperatures in the low to mid-40s and complimentary coffee on hand, a small crowd of church members and community bystanders gathered outside St. Stephen’s at 1344 Nipomo St. to watch and film a high-rising crane take down the steeple.
The wooden tower structure was damaged by dry rot and termites. The worn-out bearings made ringing the original 1800s bell dangerous.
Over the next few weeks, the church’s contractor, Peterson Beem General Contractors, will refurbish the 500-pound bell, build a new steeple and hoist the new structure as early as March or April, said the Rev. Ian Delinger, the church’s rector.
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“This is a historic building,” Delinger said. “It’s a connection to our past when San Luis Obispo was a kind of Wild West town.”
St. Stephen’s was founded in 1867 as the county’s first organized Protestant church at its current location across from the city’s Emerson Park. It’s is the second oldest church in the city after Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, established in 1772.
The structure’s traditional Sunday morning chimes, familiar to those in the downtown, have long called parishioners to worship.
“I was worried the whole bell could come down just with the tug of the rope, and so we stopped using it a couple of months ago,” said St. Stephen’s Sexton Chris Arndt. “It could have come right through the roof.”
The removed steeple was erected in 1970 to replace a tower damaged in a fire that partially destroyed the building.
Arndt captured tower-razing images Monday with a drone camera. Nearby, standing outside her Nipomo Street home, Tracy Hope applauded when the Peterson Beem crane gingerly set the bell safely on the ground.
“My grandmother lived in this house, and I live here now,” Hope said. “I’ve grown up with the church right outside this window. I remember when the 1970 fire happened. This is one of the original blocks in the history of the city.”
Delinger, who came on as the church’s rector in 2016, noticed the steeple’s cross had peeling white paint and wanted to spruce up the church’s best known symbol to welcome parishioners. An inspection of the steeple later revealed the severity of the dry rot and disrepair.
A cap will close the steeple’s open space until a new structure can be mounted.
“We’re going to rebuild the new steeple one foot shorter than its latest version to return it to how it looked originally,” Delinger said.
The landmark church has raised nearly $30,000 for the replacement bell tower. St. Stephen’s is in the midst of an additional $170,000 fundraising drive to replace redwood siding and trim, and upgrade the front entry and deteriorating paint. Anyone interested in donating should visit https://www.ststephensslo.org/ring-the-bell.html.
St. Stephen’s has about 125 parishioners and strives to provide a progressive and inclusive place of worship.
This year, for the first time in its 150-year history, the church hosted a production of “The Vagina Monologues” on Valentine’s Day, featuring a diverse, all-ages cast that included San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon and Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves, head of the Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real.