In a world where museum pieces are meant to be seen, studied and enjoyed, but not touched, Craig Deller has been allowed to place his hands on history.
The Smithsonian-trained conservator has worked on stagecoaches at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, furniture in Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois, and the fountains on the Capitol Square in Madison.
One of Deller’s signature pieces from his more than 30-year career was his work in 1999 at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago on the 22-foot-long Dearborn Telescope. Deller identified the coatings on the tube of the telescope that was built by Alvan Clark in 1864 from poplar and then covered with a walnut veneer. Deller used his careful techniques to remove years of varnish that had turned the tube black. The telescope, its wood grains clearly visible, is now a centerpiece of the planetarium’s telescope collection.
Deller’s latest project is in his cramped one-car garage just off Midvale Boulevard amid his lawnmower, garden tools and bicycles that hang from the ceiling. It’s also being done pro bono in an effort to help the congregation of Cornerstone Church in Spring Green hang on to a piece of its historic past following a devastating fire.
Ideally, Deller works in his basement in a shop filled with brushes, small hand tools, squeeze bottles of liquid solutions, humidifiers, microscopes, overhead lights and magnifying glasses. But lugging a 600-pound, soot-covered cast-iron bell down the narrow basement steps would have been impossible.
“It’s in very good shape, actually,” Deller, 62, said of the bell manufactured by the Cincinnati Bell Foundry sometime between 1890 and 1930. “There’s no fractures (and) nothing really structurally wrong with it. Our job is to clean it up and preserve it so the congregation can enjoy it.”
In November, a spectacular early morning blaze destroyed the church building constructed in 1868 by the First Congregational Church, which formed the village’s first church in 1856. The fire also destroyed the north wing of the building that was constructed by the Welsh Congregational Church in 1856 but was moved and attached to the First Congregational Church in 1901.
The cause of the fire isn’t suspicious but hasn’t been determined. One thought is that equipment being used in the restoration of the church’s wood floors at the time of the blaze may have overheated a junction box in the downstairs and caused an electrical fire, said Derek Miller, the church’s pastor since 1999.
Regardless of the cause, virtually everything was lost. The exception is a few dozen bricks, the bell and a 6-foot by 4-foot stained-glass window that had been over the church’s main entrance. It is being restored by Lighthouse Glass in Madison.
When a photo of the bell that had been lifted from the rubble by a backhoe with a chain appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal a week after the fire, Deller reached out to offer his services. The plan is for the bell to be on display as part of the landscaping of the new church facility, which will face south instead of east. The bell will be placed below where it hung for decades.
“For the community it means a lot,” Miller said of the bell’s return. “It’s sort of a treasure and emblematic of the congregation in some ways.”
The church’s mission statement is “Setting Hearts on Fire.” The church’s logo is in the shape of a flame being held by someone reaching up.
Services are being held in a building at 102 S. Washington St., which was once home to the Post Office and later an artist studio. There is space for about 75 parishioners, but new digs are on the way.
The church has about $800,000 in insurance money to rebuild, but the latest design has a price tag of about $1.1 million. Efforts are underway to bridge the gap to pay for the one story, 8,400-square-foot facility by raising more money, looking for grants and cutting back on some of the design. If construction can start in May, the building could be ready for services by Thanksgiving.
“For our church, the grieving itself was the hardest process,” Miller said. “Just the upset of going through (the fire) was very, very difficult.”
But the community and other churches from outside Spring Green responded.
Bethany Lutheran Church in Brodhead sent $500. Ss. Anthony and Philip Catholic Community Church in Highland donated $243. At an ecumenical service during lent at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Spring Green, a free-will offering collected $250 for Cornerstone.
The largest donations have come from the congregation at Spring Green Community Church, home to the former Congregationalists who sold the church to Cornerstone in 2003. On Easter Sunday, the Community Church collected $2,700 and the following Sunday another $795. The church’s pastor is Kendall Harger, who is a neighbor of Miller on Cincinnati Street.
“A lot of our people were married there and went to church there for a lot of years so there’s a connection there,” Harger said. “It was a beautiful old building, and they had done so much to renovate it.”
For Deller, the bell project is a continuation of a life that has involved all things history.
His father was an executive at Prudential but also a frustrated artist who fixed and restored old furniture. Craig Deller graduated from Southern Illinois University with a communications degree, but he and his father incorporated in 1982 what is now Deller Conservation. Deller’s father died a year later, but at about the same time Craig discovered the American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, the national organization for conservators.
“That changed my life,” Deller said. “It was my world. These are my people.”
He studied at the Smithsonian Institution’s Conservation Analytical Laboratory for three years and in 1993 he was elected as a professional associate by the AIC. In 2015, Deller reached the top level of conservator and was named a fellow.
Deller is the former president of the Chicago Area Conservation Group, is on the board of directors of the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation and he teaches conservation techniques every Friday in the graduate program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Deller had been based in Geneva, Illinois, where he had a 5,000-square-foot studio, but the 2008 recession killed his business. He moved to Madison in 2014 to be closer to family and now operates out of his house just north of the Beltline.
The bell, and an engine hoist to maneuver the piece, was delivered to his garage by a church parishioner last Monday. Deller began working on the bell on Thursday when he used a stiff nylon brush and a vacuum cleaner to remove dirt and other debris from about a one-foot section of the bell’s bracket. That was followed by a handheld steam cleaner and a toothbrush to gently scrub the area before it was dried with a heat gun.
Once cleaned, which will take about three weeks, Deller will cover the bell and the bracket with a combination of beeswax, candelilla wax and carnauba wax that is dyed black. The wax mixture will help protect the bell from the elements and give it a uniform look.
“We may have to come back and wax it every once in a while, which is fine and pretty common in outdoor sculpture. And that’s what this has become,” Deller said. “It’s no longer a functioning bell. It’s an outdoor sculpture.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.