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Cracks in church foundation a safety concern

June 26, 1998|By CLYDE FORD

photos: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer

enlargement

Cracked foundation

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - Church officials hope to start repairs soon on the stone foundation wall of the terrace in front of St. Peter's Catholic Church in Harpers Ferry.

The popular overlook above the historical lower town was cordoned off in February after the wall began to bulge, creating a crack in the structure.

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Harpers Ferry National Historical Park officials also cordoned off a grassy section between two buildings beneath the church, said Peter Dessauer, historical architect at the park. They were concerned stones might fall on visitors below if the area was not blocked off, he said.

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Dessauer said the problem with the stone foundation is a delayed reaction to 15 months of heavy rain, snow and ice between November 1995 and January 1997.

"Water in the ground has been building up and blowing out the wall," Dessauer said. "We view those cracks as getting wider and larger. There's no immediate danger of failure, but the cracks do warrant concern.

"Ground movement cracks can ebb and flow. They can increase or decrease, but we still have to act cautiously," he said.

Dessauer said park officials can only advise church officials on what to do because the church and terrace are private property.

"For all intents and purposes, it'd be good to take off that corner and rebuild it," Dessauer said.

An engineering firm hired by the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston recently completed a study and the repair work was put out for bid this week, said the Rev. Brian Owens.

St. Peter's is overseen by Owens, who is the pastor at St. James Catholic Church in Charles Town, W.Va.

St. Peter's remains open to visitors. Masses are said there about four times a year, Owens said.

Owens said he did not know how much the repair work will cost or when it will be completed.

"The diocese wants to do this properly," Owens said. "We want the wall to look like it did when the work is complete."

St. Peter's is registered as a national historical property. The terrace was constructed in 1890 on top of bedrock, Owens said.

The terrace has long been a favorite site for tourists to pose for pictures because it overlooks the lower town and the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.

"That's been tough having to keep it cordoned off, but it has to be done for safety's sake," Owens said.

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