SAVANNAH, Ga. - From scaffolding 120 feet above the sidewalks of downtown Savannah, workers chip away stucco to repair deep cracks discovered between the 137-year-old bricks that form the towering twin steeples of one of the city's most picturesque churches - the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
It's a problem expected to cost the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah about $1.5 million to fix. The church's Gothic architecture has been covered by 16 flights of scaffolding since January, with plywood forming a detoured path to the front door, and it could remain up through June. Fortunately, church officials say, the cracks were spotted just before chunks of masonry began raining down on the street below.
Some suspect the damage was caused by an August 2011 earthquake, centered 500 miles away, that gently rocked upper floors of office buildings downtown. Monsignor William O'Neill, rector of the cathedral, says there's no way to know for sure. He blames the inevitable shifting of the sandy coastal soil beneath the weight of the massive church built in 1876.
"Jesus said, build it on a rock," O'Neill said, referencing a New Testament parable from Matthew. "And we didn't do that."
With 28,000 square feet inside, more than 80 stained glass windows and dramatic Gothic spires decorated with terra cotta gargoyles, the cathedral long has been a standout in a city filled with historic churches. It was built 26 years after the Savannah diocese was established in 1850 under Pope Pius IX. Decades later, the sanctuary and roof had to be rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1898. But the original steeples remain.
What vexes O'Neill and other church leaders is that more expensive repairs are needed after a top-to-bottom restoration of the cathedral was finished in 2000. That work cost $11 million.
The rector said he was conducting his annual inspection last fall inside the south steeple, which holds the cathedral's 4,730-pound bell, when he noticed deep cracks several inches long in the mortar.
Structural engineers were called in and noticed small flakes of stucco falling from the church and collecting on the sidewalks. Using a crane to take a closer look at the steeples, they found inch-thick chunks of stucco - some the size of a book - peeling away from the brick and threatening to fall to the street.
"I went up there with a hammer and chisel and busted some off and saw there were cracks all through the bricks," said Fred Russell, site superintendent for the Rives E. Worrell Co. construction firm, which is doing the work. "The brick itself is sound. It's the mortar and the joints that are worn by movement and old age."
Exactly how Russell's crew will repair the cracks once the stucco has been removed from the steeple bricks hasn't been decided. He said one option is to fill the cracks with epoxy - essentially gluing the bricks back together - then cover both steeples in a fiberglass wrap to make them more resistant to further shifting. Engineers first will have to decide whether that method will hold up for the long haul.
Erecting the scaffolding, fixing the cracks and replacing the stucco are expected to account for about $750,000 of the repair costs. The other half of the money will go to repair leaks and other problems with the cathedral's stained glass windows, including the 20-foot rose-patterned window above the front entrance.
Meanwhile, the cathedral remains open to parishioners and tourists. More than 1,000 packed its pews on March 17 for the annual Mass celebrating St. Patrick's Day, when an Irish flag and other decorative banners were hung from the scaffolding outside.
"Life goes on, but the scaffolding is really covering the front," said Barbara King, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Savannah. "And there are some brides who are unhappy about it."