After 70 years with no maintenance, inspectors assess Heinz Chapel
Like a scene from the movie “Mission Impossible,” a climber made his way up the inside of the spire atop Heinz Chapel, drilled a hole and dropped ropes to two accomplices waiting on the ground. The three then scaled the side of the 70-year-old building.
“It was a first for us, having people rappel off the side of the building,” said Pat Gibbons, director of the Oakland chapel. “We got a few phone calls from people asking if we knew people were climbing around on the building.”
The three work for Vertical Access, an Ithaca, N.Y., company that inspects buildings in extreme locations. They spent three days this month documenting damage to the chapel’s fleche, the spire at the crossing of the nave and transept. The company will submit recommendations to help determine whether to preserve, restore, or replace it.
The project, which also involves inspection of the heating and ventilation system and the stained glass windows, is funded by a $250,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments, which likely will work with the University of Pittsburgh to pay for repairs, Gibbons said.
H.J. Heinz Co. founder Henry John Heinz donated the building as a memorial to his wife, Anna. Their children saw to its construction and Heinz Chapel was dedicated in 1938.
“It was really a great project for us due to the architecture and prominence of the building,” said Vertical Access conservator Evan Kopelson. “It’s a spectacular building and just a fantastic structure.”
It’s been 20 years since major work was done on the sheet-copper fleche, but university personnel decided it needed another look in 1995, when they found that one of the 16 hollow, metal grotesques attached to it had fallen onto the upper roof, Gibbons said.
Vertical Access was called in for the job because it was more cost-effective than assembling scaffolding, she said.
Even with their climbing equipment, it was difficult to scale the 9 1/2-foot fleche, Kopelson said. Modern buildings have elevators or stairs that lead to the roof, where climbers can find access points through which to drop ropes, but that was not the case with Heinz Chapel.
“It was a challenge in terms of rigging because the internal structure wouldn’t allow access to the outside,” Kopelson said. “There were openings about halfway up the spire, but for the upper portion we had to drill a hole from the inside.”
Once on top, the inspection team discovered that another of the 3-foot-tall grotesques had come loose, he said. The two figures will be put in storage until they can be reattached, Gibbons said.
Overall, the fleche is in good condition and shows aging and deterioration expected with exposure to an urban environment, Kopelson said.
“We found nothing we would call imminently hazardous,” he said. “We recommend that a pretty comprehensive restoration project should be undertaken.”
Ellis Schmidlapp, president of Landmarks Design Associates, the architectural firm overseeing the inspection, said he doesn’t anticipate an extensive overhaul because, compared to similar structures, the fleche was designed to withstand the elements. The South Side firm will advise the university on the best action to take once it receives Vertical Access’ report, he said.