BRATTLEBORO—Centre Congregational Church’s white steeple is a Brattleboro landmark, and it is the most visible feature of a historic structure that has stood on Main Street for 174 years.
Soon, the steeple may serve another purpose — boosting cellular signals.
After working with the church for several years, Verizon has proposed placing antennas inside the steeple’s bell tower along with related equipment inside the the clock portion of the structure.
The facility is designed to “significantly improve” cell service, according to documents submitted to the state. More importantly for church leaders and historical advocates, it’s supposed to be “completely hidden” inside the iconic steeple.
“That was one of the prerequisites — that there would be nothing discernible from the exterior,” said Bill McCarty, a former church council chairman who worked extensively with Verizon.
Centre Church has deep roots in Brattleboro, having celebrated its bicentennial in 2016. Originally located on what is now the town common, the church moved to its present Main Street location in 1843.
An account of the church’s history says a severe storm in 1864 severely damaged the steeple and spurred a reconstruction project.
Less than a decade ago, the congregation undertook another extensive steeple rehabilitation supported by a “massive capital campaign,” McCarty said. The steeple retained its historical character but was repaired and strengthened, he said.
Verizon’s modification of the famous structure is supposed to be much less invasive.
McCarty said the company first approached the church three or four years ago. Within the past year, the church struck a deal: The wireless provider could use the steeple for telecommunications equipment in exchange for lease payments.
McCarty declined to disclose financial details, but he said the combination of lease revenue and the unobtrusiveness of the antennas made it a good deal for the church.
“It was just an ideal situation,” he said. “They’re almost a perfect tenant.”
Through a Burlington attorney, Verizon has submitted an advance notice of the Centre Church project to the state Public Service Board, which must approve the proposal before it can move forward.
The document says there will be six antennas installed at a height of 59 feet on three inside walls of the steeple.
Three of the steeple’s four louvers will be replaced with “RF transparent material,” meaning material that allows wireless signals to pass through. But those replacements will be manufactured to match the originals, which will be “stored for safekeeping,” the company said.
A structural evaluation conducted in December showed that, based on the “minimal increase in overall weight by the addition of the antennas, the steeple structure will safely support the weight of the antennas” and other equipment, the state document says.
Verizon also is committing to working with the town “to assure the best possible wireless service with the least possible impact on historic resources.” Town officials a few years ago objected on aesthetic grounds to a proposed AT&T tower, but the Public Service Board OK’d the project.
Verizon notes that its proposed Centre Church cellular facility is in a “high-traffic area of the town,” though it isn’t necessarily an area with particularly poor reception by Vermont standards.
No visual changes
Spokesman David Weissmann said Verizon “is always looking to enhance its network to keep up with anticipated demand.” At the same time, he said, “we appreciate the historic significance of the Centre Church and have worked closely with a historic resource consultant” to develop the project.
“We follow all local, state, and federal guidelines in building our network and are committed to working with all stakeholders in ensuring that we can provide for the community’s communications needs without long-term visual changes to the church,” Weissmann said.
While he didn’t offer statistics, Weissmann said using existing, historic structures for cell antennas is “certainly a tool in our toolkit” depending on location and network needs.
The practice has been widespread for decades. Seventeen years ago, the Preservation Trust of Vermont, with support from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, issued a guide titled “Locating Telecommunications Towers in Historic Buildings.”
The document concludes that, “in historic areas, a concealed site is almost always preferable to building industrial-style towers in prominent locations, as long as the historic nature of a host building is respected.”
“Concealing wireless installations in existing structures can provide an essential service to a community without disrupting its character,” the study’s authors’ wrote. “Furthermore, the rental income from hosting an installation often goes toward much-needed repairs for older and historic structures.”
For Centre Church, the coupling of new technology and an old steeple seems like a “win-win situation” for similar reasons, McCarty said.
“We’re getting a reasonable remuneration, and it helps the town,” he said.