It takes a Priest to make ‘dome top’ tour complete
Chelsea Priest went to new heights Tuesday to get on top of a story. It wasn’t easy. Her legs shook. She laughed a lot and she held onto to the metal scaffolding that encases the Warwick City Hall tower until her knuckles were white.
But then Priest, a Warwick resident and reporter for ABC Channel 6, was on assignment, and where the mayor and governor were going, she was going to go, too.
They weren’t alone.
An entourage accompanied Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Mayor Scott Avedisian on their trip to the top of the City Hall dome that included Virginia Hesse, principal historical architect for the state Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, as well as the commission’s executive director Edward Sanderson.
Serving as the principal tour guide was Robert O’Donnell of EF O’Donnell and Son, the general contractor for the $772,000 restoration of the City Hall tower. Tagging along for the 135-foot climb was a collection of city and the governor’s staffers and, of course, the media.
Chafee was up to the challenge, although a suit and black leather shoes don’t make for ideal climbing attire, so he shed his jacket, as did the mayor.
O’Donnell went over details at the foot of the stairs to City Hall. He said two of the eight timbers supporting the domed tower were severely rotted. Water had leaked from around their metal sheathing. Rather than replace the beams, the rotted wood was chipped away and a to ??????????????????????????insert sister beams of steel and wood was devised.
“The most expensive thing thus far is the scaffolding,” Mayor Avedisian said, and put the cost at $100,000. “While it [the scaffolding] was there, we decided to do everything.”
Sanderson said William R. Walker designed City Hall in the late 1800s. He called Warwick City Hall, known as Town House when completed, one of Walker’s finer achievements, along with the Cumberland Town Hall.
O’Donnell said the clock faces – there are three on the tower – are being redone and that the hand-wound system operated by weights will function.
Chafee was curious whether that would be automated, but it’s not in the scheme or the budget at this time. The clock mechanism triggers a hammer that rings the tower bell on the hour.
“We’re trying to bring it back to the original look,” said O’Donnell, who explained that original drawings were used to guide the work.
Some elements of the structure, such as the copper urns at the corners of the belfry, have been fabricated offsite.
Avedisian said the weathervane, with its gold points of the compass and feather-shaped arrow, will be on display in City Hall before the scaffolding starts coming down at the end of this month.
With the details explained, two groups set off to scale the tower. The mayor, the governor and several others, including Priest, went from inside, emerging at the belfry where they joined the scaffolding to make it to the top. The others donned hard hats and walked the scaffolding.
The governor admired the workmanship and the view as he went. At one moment he was taking in how the now penny-bright copper dome will, in time, take on a green patina, and the next he was pointing out the contours of Warwick Neck and Cowesett. At one point, he looked over the railing and yelled “Hello” to his driver, Trooper Paul Sikorsky of the State Police, who waved from the parking lot below.
Sanderson wore a jacket and tie.
“I figured it might be cold up there,” he said.
It wasn’t. It was a sparkling day.
Hesse kept pace with the group, hardly a challenge considering she previously climbed to the top of the State House dome.
Priest took small steps, inching along in her skirt and shoes – and, no, they weren’t high heels. Joe Blake, maintenance director of city buildings, took pity. He carried her camera, but then said she wouldn’t get it back unless she went to the very top. She made it, daring only to let go of the scaffolding to take the microphone and make a 15-second report as the platform swayed gently in the wind.
With her work done, she announced, “I’m going to put this on my bucket list…and then cross it off.”