Historic Green Hill Church doors restored to perfection

David Southern, left, makes adjustments to one of two sets of doors he crafted for Green Hill Church near Whitehaven. He and his assistant, Brian Napier, right, spent three days installing hardware, touch-up sanding and painting and hanging the four 10-foot high door panels. It took almost 7 months, off and on, to build the doors which feature raised panels inside and vertical beaded panels on the exterior. (Brice Stump Photo)

After 140 years, Green Hill Church near Whitehaven has new doors. 

Not just any doors from the local hardware warehouse store, mind you, but doors unlike any others on the Eastern Shore.

They are 10-foot-high works of art crafted from African mahogany, white oak and southern heart pine.

Two sets of doors, each with two leaves, were seven months in the making. They are, said Bill Wilson, “fantastic.”

Wilson, a member of the Green Hill Church Preservation Committee, and well-known for his decades of work overseeing the restoration of Pemberton Hall near Salisbury, is wowed by the 18th century-style doors featuring handmade iron hardware.

“They are absolutely beautiful,” he said softly, as his fingertips glided over the fresh deep maroon paint on the 2-inch-thick doors.

They were needed to replace rotting doors that had been placed in the church in the late 1880s.

In January of  this year, the preservation committee put the door project out for bids, and the winner was David Southern of Seaford, an aspiring furniture maker specializing in handcrafted one-of-a-kind works of art.

Problem was, he had never built doors, much less those 10-feet tall.

After months of research, Wilson and Barton Ross — of Barton Ross & Partners, architects in Chestertown — were able to provide Southern with blue prints of the reproduction doors in the style that would have originally hung on the church which was built in 1733. 

Work on the architecture of the church, and plans to build reproduction doors, has been undertaken for decades by award-winning architectural historical Michael Bourne of Chestertown, who is now Ross’ mentor.

Ross, who has undertaken projects at the U.S. Capitol building, and is known throughout Maryland for his knowledge of restoration of 18th century buildings, was equally impressed by the Southern’s craftsmanship.

The emphasis was on authenticity, so Wilson and Ross researched other period church doors, including those in Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Wye Church and churches on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and the Carolinas. 

Wilson noted that the cost of the doors and handmade hardware came in at about $37,000 was a major expenditure for the committee, but it also represents top quality craftsmanship and historically accurate doors.

“These may very well have been an exact match to what was originally on Green Hill Church,’ he said.

The reproduction forged iron straps, hooks, 600 individually handmade nails, hinges, mounting pins, interior latches were handmade specifically for the doors by Michael Coldren Co., of North East Md.

An 11-by-9-inch iron lock, weighing  at least 10 pounds, Wilson said, was made by Peter Ross, former chief blacksmith of Colonial Williamsburg.

“Peter also made three special keys. The lock and keys are excellent examples of a master craftsman’s work,” he said.

Wilson said the routine painting of the doors in the future will be handled by Bob Krater and Rick Roman of Star Painters. “They have done all the painting here, for free, for decades,” Phillips said. 

“Grants to pay for the reproductions were obtained from the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore, through the Hambury Fund, and The National Trust for Historical Preservation and that was through the Bartus Trew Providence Forge Trust and a generous gift from Chesapeake Nurseries, and a number of private donations and the Preservation Trust for Wicomico County,” said committee member Lee Ellen Griffith 

Shawn Fahee takes a photo of members of the Green Hill Church Preservation Committee, and the craftsmen who built two sets of reproduction doors for the church, just before they were installed. From left, Brian Napier, assistant to craftsman David Southern, who built the reproduction doors; Sam Hotton, Lee Ellen Griffith, Bill Wilson, Tom Phillips and Phil Tilghman. (Brice Stump Photo.)

It was a strange coincidence as to how Southern, 29, got involved with the door project. 

“Two years ago I was sitting in the pews, here, during Green Hill Sunday with my future mother-in-law, and the preacher mentioned that they were developing a campaign to have reproduction doors made.

“She nudged me and whispered, ‘That’s got your name all over it.’”

He continued: “I knew Sam Hotton was on the door committee so I mentioned to him I’d be interested in getting the project, so he introduced me to Bill Wilson, and you know the rest.”

You’d never see a set of doors like this at a big box store. They are totally one-of-a-kind custom made, and there is no glue whatsoever used in their construction,” he said.

“The exterior is quarter-sawn African mahogany and the interior is southern yellow pine, which came from a tree that grew in the churchyard. Special quarter-sawn white oak was used in the 5-inch mortise and tenon framing, specially to reduce rot,” Southern said. 

“These doors are massive, heavy. Each of the four door panels are 2-and-a-half-feet wide, and 2-and-a-quarter-inches thick.

“The four vertical framing timbers weigh about 150 pounds each, he said. The two sills weigh in excess of 170 pounds each. Each set of doors weigh about 300 pounds,” he said.

“Building these was the ultimate challenge of my career, well outside my usual furniture-building forte. There’s a lot to this. They are as close to perfect as I know how to make them.

“Yes, I was nervous when it came time to hang the doors. It’s one thing working with them on the workbench, completely another when it came time to life them in place for a perfect fit,” Southern said.

For Southern — a specialist in fine art furniture, not carpentry — his doors are a career triumph.

“Man I’m proud of these doors, I just love them,” he said. 

It’s a testimony to the accuracy of the masons, who laid the brick in 1733, that the difference in the measurements of the two openings in the brick for the two door sets is just an eighth of an inch.

Brick mason Jimmy Stringer of Fruitland restores brickwork above the doors at Green Hill Church. In the late 1880s brickwork was modified to accommodate a set of doors that replaced the original ones installed in 1733. (Brice Stump Photo)

Green Hill Episcopal Church, also known as St. Bartholmew’s Church, is under the care of the Episcopal Diocese of Easton, and for more than a century it has held only one annual service.

Father David Michaud, who ministers at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Salisbury, also oversees the work at Green Hill.  

“It’s part of our mission as the Green Hill Church Committee to preserve maintain and restore old Green Hill Church and its ground for posterity in an historically accurate state. This is our church heritage and history,” he explained.

“When people walk into Green Hill we want them to have a sense of what those worshippers of the 18th century would have experienced,” Michaud said. “There have been a number of repairs and improvements over the years, but we are trying to restore the church as it was when built in 1733. It’s the oldest original church standing in Wicomico County.”

The preservation committee was formed about a year ago. “Green Hill used to be under the care of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Tyaskin, but its congregation had dwindled to the point they couldn’t keep it up, so they asked the Diocese of Easton to take over the property,” Michaud said.

“While this is a diocesan project, the committee is composed of individuals from the five Episcopal churches, the daughter churches of Green Hill. Decisions concerning Green Hill are made by the committee, but we are outreaching to have partners on the preservation subcommittee. There are Episcopalians and members of the community working side by side to preserve the church,” he said.

Painstaking research

By the end of the Civil War the church was almost in ruins. After 1886 the church was “fixed up enough,” Wilson said, to allow for an annual service and picnic. 

“The making of the new doors came about through very important painstakingly research. The previous set, probably placed in the 1880s, were not original nor copies of the original doors. But what we have now are doors that people in Colonial times would have recognized and walked through,” he said.

“A set of doors is being dedicated to the memory of Dr. Robert McFarlin and the other set to the memory of H. Lay Phillips Jr. Both very much cared about and greatly contributed to the preservation of Green Hill Church,” Michaud said.

Phillips’ son, Tom, said he knows his father would be honored that his work at the church was appreciated.

For at least 40 years Phillips had been the caretaker of the church, gratis, and his son said when he was a boy he was routinely at the church helping his father cut grass, pick up limbs and ready the church for special events.

The McFarlin and Phillips families also made contributions toward the door construction project.

“A holy Eucharist service will be held at 10 a.m, Sunday, Aug, 25,” Michaud said, “followed by a dedication and blessing of the doors service. Following the services, a picnic will be held on the church grounds overlooking the Wicomico River. The public is cordially invited to join us,” he said.

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