Robert gives centuries-old windows a new lease on life
Centuries-old windows in St George’s are getting a new lease on life thanks to the skilled attention of Robert Powell.
The 66-year-old has spent the past two months fixing the 14 windows at St Peter’s Church rectory. The building, which sits behind the Unfinished Church on Government Hill Road, is home to Reverend Tom Slawson and his family.
Such repair work is never easy as, in any project, he never knows what he will find, the craftsman said.
In this instance, rot had developed in many of the cedar frames.
“On one of the windows I had to replace the whole bottom,” Mr Powell said. “By the kitchen I had to cut a piece out and splice new cedar back in. It did not make sense taking the whole thing out if there was still good wood.”
Replacing cracked or broken window panes has also kept him busy however he was thrilled to discover that many of the antique glass squares were still intact and useable.
Staff estimate them to be about 200 years old.
The rectory sits on the site of the old Government House, which was built in 1721. It fell empty when Bermuda's capital moved to Hamilton in 1815. In 1874, its front was removed and portions of the west wing were partly used to build the rectory to accompany what we today know as the Unfinished Church.
The project has taught Mr Powell a lot about old building techniques.
“They didn’t have the tools that we have today,” he said.
“They put in this weatherstrip that helped to stop the window blowing in, or falling out during a hurricane.”
He grew up in St David’s, the middle child of four boys, and spent a lot of time with his grandparents Andrew and Mary "Ma" Burchall.
His grandmother, who made lots of jams and chutneys, taught him how to cook; an uncle showed him how different parts of a cedar tree could be used in boat building.
He was about nine when he started learning about carpentry and masonry.
Mr Powell’s talents came to the attention of St Peter's six months ago.
He was initially asked to refinish, repaint and varnish the church doors.
The work took about two months, after which he was asked to restore the rectory's window frames.
He has four more to do. With the anticipated break over Christmas he expects to be finished by the end of January.
“After that I have something else to work on,” he said.
The work on St Peter’s and its rectory is funded by Friends of St Peter’s Church.
The organisation was founded in 2005 “as a non-profit organisation of individuals dedicated to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and promotion of St Peter’s Church and its adjacent graveyard”.
The Friends undertake a major project and several small ones every year. The window repairs, new blinds and improvements to the rectory’s stone work, will cost more than $20,000.
Mr Powell has had some difficult times. At 16, he was picked on by older boys in school. No amount of walking away or turning the other cheek would make them stop.
He took martial arts classes to learn how to defend himself.
Then one day one of the bullies threw a rock that struck the back of his head. This time Mr Powell fought back.
“I blinded one of the guys in his eye,” he said. “I broke the other guy’s jaw. I did not want to do it. My teacher always told me to be humble and walk away if I could. I tried to talk and walk away.”
He was expelled from school until witnesses explained he had acted in self-defence. The other boys were then expelled and he was invited to come back but refused.
“By that time I was already working,” he said.
One of his first jobs was in construction. In the early 1970s he helped build what is today the Fairmont Southampton hotel.
“That was a very big project that lasted five years,” he said. “I was there from when it was just sand, to when it was a building.”
Next he went to Belco, where he worked on the turbine diesel engines.
“I had to start from scratch climbing inside these engines,” he said. “Three people could sit inside one of the cylinders. But I got tired of that because I would come home black with oil. It would coat my nails. There would be a ring around the tub when I took a bath.”
He stayed there two years then fell back on his real passion in life, fishing.
His uncle Ted Powell, who owned The Spot on Burnaby Street, helped him to buy a small boat. In return, Mr Powell supplied the restaurant with fresh fish.
“I catch all types of fish,” he said. “I don’t like wahoo. Wahoo is a very dry fish. A lot of people like it, but it doesn’t have a taste the way a rainbow runner or a grouper has.”
Mr Powell was fishing off the northeast of the island when Hurricane Emily surprised Bermuda with Category 3 winds in 1987.
“When I went out the skies were blue,” he said.
Grey snappers were practically jumping into his boat when, all of a sudden, he noticed an ominous black cloud forming off the northwest.
“That storm just came up out of nowhere,” said Mr Powell, who got halfway to land when swells started to build.
“I had my old wooden boat then. She stood firm. She got me into St David’s. I had a well full of fish.”
It had taken him an hour-and-a-half to get out to his fishing spot and three hours to get home again.
“I surely did bless the heavenly father when I got home,” Mr Powell said. “It was an experience.”
Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Wednesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or email@example.com with the full name and contact details and the reason you are suggesting them