SUGAR HILL - If you’ve ever driven Route 117 up and over and through Sugar Hill — to see the lupines in June, perhaps, or the bright colors of fall — you’ve passed St. Matthew’s Chapel. Maybe you pulled to the side of the road to snap a picture of the lovely white chapel with the yellow door and pretty stained glass windows, the mountains rising in the distant background.
“The chapel is one of the most photographed churches or chapels in New England,” said Betsy Holcombe, a member of the St. Matthew’s committee, which oversees services at the chapel — and, this fall, renovation work to the chapel’s foundation.
For 126 years, St. Matthew’s has served as a summer chapel for the Episcopal diocese of New Hampshire. It was built for (and funded by) the well-heeled guests of the grand hotels that once filled the local landscape with grandeur and high etiquette. In more recent years, it has hosted 10 weekly Sunday services in the warmer months, as well as weddings, memorial services, and concerts.
“It’s really a building for the community of Sugar Hill, and we’re very happy to be preserving it,” Holcombe said.
Like many older buildings, St. Matthews has moved out of level over time. For the past few years regular chapel-goers have noticed the building seemed to be shifting — just a bit, but enough to notice, and to worry.
“It has been pitching and heaving for all of these years. It got to the point where it just wasn’t level,” said Holcombe. “The steeple was going slowly in one direction. It looked like it was sliding down toward Franconia, and we really wanted to keep it in Sugar Hill.”
Preserving the chapel, at this point in St. Matthew’s history, includes replacing faulty footings under the building. That has involved lifting the chapel off its old foundation, supporting it on steel beams, and rolling it carefully to the side — work managed ably by Holderness-based Arnold M. Graton Associates.
The Graton crew has been at work on the project since September and last week poured the new concrete footings that will support the chapel, Holcombe hopes, for many years to come. She expects the project to be completed by Thanksgiving.
Arnold Graton has been working on historic buildings for more than 60 years. In the 1950s he worked with his father, Milton S. Graton, to build and restore covered bridges. Since then, according to the Arnold M. Graton Associates website, he has built 16 new bridges and restored 65.
Graton Associates has also been involved in restoration work of the Mayflower II in preparation for next year’s 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival in Plymouth. The Graton crew used steel beams to lift the ship so restoration crews could get to work. Some of the beams that supported the Mayflower II are now supporting St. Matthew’s steeple, Holcombe said.
Restoring old things — whether bridges or boats or picturesque chapels — involves patience.
Two years ago, the St. Matthew’s Chapel committee sought and obtained a grant from the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance for a building assessment to determine why the building seemed to be shifting. That assessment showed faulty footings beneath the chapel. To open grant-funding opportunities, the committee then hired a researcher who helped the chapel gain placement on the New Hampshire Register of Historic Places.
That made St. Matthew’s eligible for a Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP) grant, and the committee was awarded $50,000 last December for work on the chapel. Two anonymous donations — of $50,000 and $25,000 — plus several smaller contributions came in to cover the $150,000 bill for the restoration work.
Holcombe said as soon as the chapel was lifted off its old footings, it became more level. When the Graton crew moved the cornerstone, which was laid in 1893 and will be replaced before the chapel is put back onto the new footings, they discovered a brick-sized metal box: a time-capsule.
The box contained coins from the 1800s, a copy of the New York Times from August 1893, and a book that could be a prayer book or bible. Although the book and newspapers had gotten wet and deteriorated over the years, Holcombe said the coins have been saved and will be reburied, along with some modern items, before the project is complete.
Work on the chapel restoration began in September, after the final Sunday service of the season. Lifting, supporting, and moving a historic structure is painstaking, exact work.
“It’s a job that can’t be rushed,” Holcombe said, adding that Graton is “one of the most patient men I’ve ever met.”
Since moving the building, the crew has dug a new foundation, improved drainage, and last week poured new concrete footings to support the chapel.
“The church is going to look exactly the same way as it started, except it will be stable,” Holcombe said. “From the outside, you won’t notice a thing.”
For the countless people who have been married in the chapel, or held memorial services there, who attend summer services, or who simply admire the pretty church as they pass by, preserving this little slice of local history is priceless.
“It’s a beautiful spot,” said Nancy Goebel, who splits her time between Pembroke and Lisbon, just down Route 117 from the chapel.
Goebel was married in the chapel in 1997. She and her husband, Gary, chose the location because it was in the heart of the mountains where they met and continued to recreate together. When Gary passed away in 2010, Nancy had a granite bench dedicated in his memory. It is placed, aptly, on the side of the chapel toward the mountains.
“It was a way for him to be where we were at our happiest,” Nancy said. “I knew I would be connected to that area forever. This is his spot. It brings me great peace to go by there and see him there and know that he’s protected there, in the realm of St. Matthew’s.”
Holcombe, like many others in the area, has ties to the chapel that include childhood memories and family connections. Her grandmother was involved in the chapel’s earlier years and donated the stained-glass windows that continue to welcome visitors. She said the summer services attract both out-of-town visitors and people who have been going to St. Matthew’s for years — even decades.
“It’s not a large congregation, but it’s a loyal congregation,” she said.
Watching the project to shore up and preserve the chapel has been satisfying.
“It’s been an adventure. It’s been exciting. We’ve been working toward this for a couple of years. Now that it’s progressing, it’s just so wonderful to see,” Holcombe said. “We’ll have a chapel that will be around for, we hope, another 126 years or more.”