New metal archway a welcome addition to church in downtown Pittsboro

Posted 4/12/19

PITTSBORO — When flooding damaged part of Salisbury Street at a drainage culvert near St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church three years ago, a short stretch of the knee-high brick wall enclosing the …

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New metal archway a welcome addition to church in downtown Pittsboro

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PITTSBORO — When flooding damaged part of Salisbury Street at a drainage culvert near St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church three years ago, a short stretch of the knee-high brick wall enclosing the church’s cemetery was an additional casualty.

The Town of Pittsboro repaired the damage to Salisbury Street and fixed the drainage culvert to prevent future flooding problems there. In repairing the road and the culvert, damage to the wall around the cemetery was an unavoidable by-product.

The brick wall has recently been repaired, by Aaron Owen of Owen Masonry & Design in Holly Springs, but a final piece of the repair was completed last Thursday when local metal craftsman George Barrett and his crew installed Barrett’s newly-built iron archway, establishing a new, elegant entrance into the old cemetery.

Although a new addition to the historic church, which was built in 1832, the new metal archway, weighing approximately 1,500 pounds, doesn’t look out of place, though it is eye-catching.

“This is a modern take on an historic thing,” said Barrett, noting he took inspiration for his 21st century creation from the existing, longstanding archway atop the steps that lead into St. Bartholomew’s sanctuary. Both archways, old and new, front Salisbury Street.

“It raises your eyes and all of a sudden you see this great cemetery right here in town,” said Al Capehart, a longtime Pittsboro resident, member of St. Bartholomew’s Church, and one of several folks instrumental in planning and designing the new archway.

Capehart wasn’t without a very personal reason in desiring to see the cemetery’s wall restored and a new archway built.

Ten years ago, Capehart and his wife purchased burial plots in St. Bartholomew’s cemetery.

He intentionally chose plots near the busy thoroughfare, just down the street from where the Town of Pittsboro will soon build its new Town Hall on property once the site of a Piggly Wiggly grocery store.

“It put us close to the street,” Capehart explained, “so we could see the people coming and going.”

The plots were also near the damaged wall.

But Capehart, who has done much altruistic work throughout his life — both through Rails to Trails, a non-profit organization that turns abandoned railroad tracks into public walking trails, and spreading good cheer in his work as “Santa Al” (in 2003, Capehart created Triangle Santa Buddies, a network of professional Santa Clauses) — wasn’t entirely motivated by the location of his own final resting place.

“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “I’m thinking about the historic ambiance this wall creates for the entire block.”

The project cost approximately $35,000, paid through the church’s cemetery fund.

“We feel it’s worth the investment,” Capehart said, “to be able to open this up to the public as a quiet place to retreat. It’s a place to come, reflect, pray and just be one’s self with the spirit of what’s on this property.”

It’s a strong and positive spirit, he said.

“People say when they go into our little sanctuary — you know it was built in 1832 — that there have been so many prayers said in that building that you can walk in there and feel you’ve been prayed over already,” Capehart said. “It really and truly has that holy feel about it.”

Capehart worked on the project with Pittsboro architect Grimsley T. Hobbs Jr., whose office is across Salisbury Street from the church, within sight of the newly-installed archway. His firm, Hobbs Architects, had recently completed other renovation work at the church and that project, now complete, dovetailed into the archway project.

Hobbs put Capehart in touch with George Barrett, who had worked with Hobbs Architects previously on an historically sensitive renovation project at Fort Macon in Carteret County.

Barrett agreed to take on the iron archway project, working with Capehart on its design.

Last Thursday afternoon, Barrett, lifting the heavy archway pieces with a crane, installed the new structure, placing the pieces, leveling them and securing them with strong bolts.

Their work for a couple of hours on Salisbury Street drew lots of onlookers and passers-by craned their necks from their cars to catch the action.

“George has created a very nice piece of art,” Capehart said.

“I think it’s lovely,” agreed Karen Ladd, a pastor at St. Bartholomew’s. “It’s not only a welcoming gateway into our beautiful, nearly 200-year-old cemetery, but it’s also a welcome addition to the beauty of downtown Pittsboro.”

The large piece of metal art is also, as it turns out, Barrett’s swan song in Chatham County, where for the past 38 years he’s created metal works — fences and railings, gates and furniture and more — for numerous customers.

“This is my last piece,” Barrett said. “Well, for now.”

Born and raised in Chatham County, and operating Storybook Metal Works since he launched the business in 1980, Barrett isn’t exactly retiring. He calls it a sabbatical. He is moving, leaving the county he’s called home all of his 65 years, for a new endeavor in Arkansas, where he and his wife are planning to move later this year.

Barrett resists being called an “artist,” preferring “craftsman” instead.

But Capehart wasn’t hesitant in his assessment of his work, especially his newest piece now in place at St. Bart’s.

“It’s art,” said Capehart, “George should be proud of it.”

And though he’s secured a quiet, peaceful corner, just on the other side of the red brick wall, for the eventual resting place of his ashes (and a lock of his hair), Capehart said he’s in no rush to get there.

When he was 42, Capehart said he set a goal of living to age 81.

“Now I’m 81 and I’ve got to reset my goals,” he said. ”Now I’m shooting for 92. I’ve only got 11 years to go. If I get to it, I’ll set another.”

Meanwhile, Capehart plans to enjoy the sight of the new archway and its peaceful, shaded setting, and he hopes others in Pittsboro will, too.

Staff photo by David Bradley

George Barrett makes adjustments on the base of the entranceway to St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church cemetery off Salisbury Street before final assembly of a new archway. The three points repeated in the design symbolize the Trinity, and also echo the design of the front of the church, which was built in 1832.

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