On a beautiful day in August 1995, disaster struck a beloved landmark in Stuart, Iowa. An arsonist destroyed the historic All Saints Church, voted the Most Beautiful Church in Iowa by Des Moines Register readers.
Built in 1908, All Saints' Byzantine design resembled St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, Italy. Inside, it featured hand-painted frescoes, Italian marble altars, and ornate stained glass windows.
Three copper domes topped the church's entrance. Hand-carved limestone walls conveyed strength and permanence. Almost 90 years later, these walls were the only thing left standing.
Rising from the ashes
Almost immediately, local volunteers established the Project Restore Foundation to rebuild. After the congregation moved, the Foundation bought the building in 1999. It raised $4 million over several years, including grants, historic restoration funds, and a city bond referendum.
The Foundation asked Kirk Blunck, FAIA, principal in charge at HLKB Architecture, and structural engineer Jim Tometich, P.E., to survey the damage. Although the stone walls had been covered with rubber roofing material, more than a decade of exposure had taken a toll. Mud covered the floors and saplings grew inside the church's formerly ornate sanctuary.
Masonry and mortar tests confirmed that the walls were structurally sound, and the interior could be restored. Initially, general contractor Paul Koester's cost estimate included significant steel reinforcement and a new foundation. “The masonry's integrity was critical to the success of this project, and it saved a lot of money,” says Blunck. This savings paid for a new copper dome.
Mike Caligiuri, a mason for more than 40 years and a restoration expert, was hired to bring the masonry back to life. He and a two-man crew worked, to restore the brick and stone, for 18 months. First, they cleared more than a foot of debris (and hundreds of bats) from the top of the walls.
While demolition took place inside, the masons tuck-pointed the limestone exterior. They rebuilt three of the towers and repaired window sills with stone from the original central dome.
Next, Caligiuri's team repaired the inside, where the fire and years of moisture had damaged the brick. The masons rebuilt eight structural points that had held the church's iron frame roof. They restored and repinned brick arches, and repaired the roofline to make the bolt areas secure enough to support a new roof.
To avoid damaging the church's interior brick and tile walls by cleaning them with chemicals or high-pressure water, Caligiuri says his team, “mostly used elbow grease and a thick brush.” They tuck-pointed the walls with an “old style 5:1 sand mix” made from portland cement, lime, and fill sand to match the original mortar's color and texture. Where brick was laid near stone, they used a lighter lime mix to avoid staining.
Most of their hard work still shows, although that wasn't always the plan. “The idea of leaving the masonry exposed didn't initially fit with the glorious interior that parish members remembered,” says Blunck.
The church's basement—now the Foundation Room—helped changed that attitude. Caligiuri's team cleaned and tuck-pointed the limestone foundation walls and used local quarry stone to fill a large hole that provided access for bulldozers during demolition. “The wall was a plastered mess before,” Caligiuri recalls. “Since we were leaving the plaster off, we did the best we could with the original materials.” Although the space looks much different now, the original materials are attracting favorable attention.
All Saints Church is now The Saints Center, a community and cultural center and home of The Learning Museum for Religious Tolerance, featuring permanent displays about the world's major religions.
Owner: City of Stuart, Iowa
Architect: HLKB Architecture, Des Moines, Iowa
Structural Engineer: Tometich Engineering, Inc., Urbandale, Iowa
General Contractor: Koester Construction Co., Grimes, Iowa
Masonry Contractor: Construction by Caligiuri, Indianola, Iowa
Materials Suppliers: Lounsbury Sand & Gravel, West Des Moines, Iowa; Martin Marietta Aggregates, Marshalltown, Iowa
Restoring All Saints Church