Earthquake damage closes historic Grace Episcopal Church

A sensor within the walls of Grace Episcopal Church detected enough movement to prompt the building’s closing.

The sanctuary of Grace Episcopal Church, a historic downtown parish, is off limits for at least a few weeks because of damage caused by the Aug. 23 Virginia earthquake and its aftershocks.

An electronic sensor in the west clerestory wall "showed significant movement" over a seven-hour period on Friday. Technically, five different wythes of brick inside the wall were "delaminating," or separating from one another, according to Craig Bennett of 4SE Structural Engineers, the firm overseeing the church's ongoing "Saving Grace" building reinforcement program.

Additional electronic sensors recorded slight movement on two occasions since, church officials said.

"So we climbed up there and checked the mechanical sensors that we had attached and found out that the electronic sensors were, at the very least, telling the truth, if not somewhat understating it," Bennett said.

Over two years, sensors have detected minor movement within the church walls due to temperature and humidity fluctuation, but the recent rattling compromised the structural integrity of the building enough to prompt its closing.

"In addition, because of the remote but real possibility that portions of the walls could fall, the playground near Croft Hall and the Garden of Remembrance also will be closed and off limits," church officials wrote in a letter to the congregation.

Services have been relocated to the adjacent Hanahan Hall and nearby Mt. Zion AME Church.

The Rev. Canon J. Michael A. Wright, rector of Grace Church, said the congregation has had to deal with its share of weather- related and geology-induced struggles over the years.

"What's constant is our congregation's willingness to move through those events instead of being paralyzed by them," he said.

It's curious that, since the "Saving Grace" officially kicked off in 2006, church membership has grown, Wright said. This silver lining proves that suffering and strain can be redemptive, he said.

"What it's taught us is that the church is really not a building," he said. It's a resilient community of believers.

Bennett said he and his team are developing a short-term solution that could enable the congregation to return to the sanctuary.

"Probably it's a system of rods through the wall, tying the inner and outer faces of the wall together," he said, offering an analogy:

If you stack five yardsticks, gluing them together, you've got a strong 36-inch-long column. But if you stack five unglued yardsticks, and push on the end, the yardsticks separate. "You've got very little strength there."

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or on Facebook.