Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Theatre Seating - Replacement Project and History

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1895 Photograph showing original Grand Rapids Furniture Company theatre or opera house style seats.

This article was written by Board of Trustees Chair, Tim Wilson.  It documents the multi-year effort to replace the seating in the sanctuary, and provides some history about the seating, dating all the way back to when the church was first built in 1894. 

The success of this seat replacement project is a fine example of how a healthy church congregation can, and should, function, and its story merits sharing. When we learned that the replacement cushions were ready, we were thrilled. But we were less thrilled with the timing...the week before CHRISTMAS! Getting them installed before then immediately became a goal. How? With busy schedules of the holiday season, it seemed an impossible dream. Surely, nobody would be willing to share their time installing seat cushions at this time of year. Or, would they? We all know the answer! But first, here is a bit of history about our seats:

From the 1894 dedication article in The London Times: The seats are leather upholstered divans or folding chairs, fixed in a stationery manner, and arranged in a circular form so that each person in the audience is seated on a direct line with the speaker. The furniture, which is elegant, was purchased of the Grand Rapids Furniture Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“Tom Thumb Wedding” - our very own Diane Noland-Byers is the bride. You can see the original chairs in the lower sides of this picture. By this time, the chairs had been re-arranged to allow for a center aisle.

With its auditorium-style sanctuary, very typical of Akron Plan architecture, First United Methodist Church has been equipped with theatre-type seats since the building was constructed in 1894. Our church never had pews typical of those one might expect to find in a church sanctuary. Churches of Akron Plan architecture were equipped with either arc-shaped pews or theatre-type seats. The two remaining original theatre-type seats were on display during service on Sunday, December 22. Our original theatre-type seating was supplied by Grand Rapids School Furniture, which still exists today. The company has been in business since 1886. But after twenty years in business, the name was changed to American Seating to more accurately reflect its full line of business. They still manufacture seating for classrooms, auditoriums, lecture halls, cafeterias, libraries, break rooms, conference rooms, and administrative offices in the K-12 and college and university market. They also manufacture seats for busses and other transportation vehicles. In the world of entertainment, American Seating products can be found in several famous venues, including Madison Square Garden, Dodger Stadium, and Fenway Park.

American Seating school desks

Back to our seats. By 1956, our original seats (from 1894) were in bad shape. They were worn out and falling apart. In spite of their beauty and historic integrity, they couldn’t be restored. No replacement parts were being manufactured. So, our church called upon American Seating to build new chairs for our sanctuary. New seating from the company was installed. From 1957 to 2013, because of their superior construction, materials, and workmanship, they needed little to no maintenance. The seating was removed and replaced twice, first during the 1976 sanctuary remodeling and again in 1995 when the sanctuary was restored, as close as possible, to its 1894 appearance. Both times, the rows of seats were stored in the chapel while sanctuary work was completed.

Two of our original 1894 chairs; note the hat rack

The topic of our deteriorating seats has been under consideration with the board of trustees since 2011. We all knew that many of us had experienced the occasional, unexpected goosing in the rump from errant, unruly and exposed springs and that the fabric of many seats was in tatters. But after 56 years of service, the seats were tired. At that time, the trustees decided it was best to delay plans of a costly replacement project until debt from the 2009-2010 capital improvements project was retired. Still eager, we proceeded to seek information about options available to us. We all were doubtful of the likelihood of finding replacements or whether or not they even could be made.

One of our 280 seats - in tatters with exposed springs

I knew the current seats were made by American Seating, so I began my search by giving them a call. I talked to Becky DeVault, a very kind and courteous lady, indeed. She was a 40-year veteran of the company. I gave her our information and after hearing much rummaging around of cards and papers, she reported her findings. “The order was placed in 1956 and consisted of 280 total seats, 11 at 19 inches, 220 at 20 inches, 33 at 21 inches, and 19 at 22 inches.” She told me they would love to work with us and that new foam and covers could easily be made. I couldn’t believe it! After all of these years, they still had our records. So, American Seating prepared an estimate. From our conversation, Becky knew of my passion for all historic things related to our church, so she scanned and emailed me the original 1956 order and all information about our seats.

The original seat order from 1956, courtesy of American Seating

I gave a report to the board of trustees. We decided it would be best to see a sample of the new replacement product. When I called to it, I learned that Becky had retired. Julie, her replacement, was not very cooperative. She told me they could not produce cushions and covers for us, that our chairs were too old, and that our project was too small for their company. I was totally shocked and hugely disappointed. But oddly enough, Julie asked me to send them a sample seat to at least see what they might be able to do for us. She told me not to expect anything to come of it. Wow! How would you like a person like that representing your company? A few months passed with no word from American Seating.

Most seats were holey!

In 2012, a bequest was made to our church. It was specifically earmarked to fund replacement of the sanctuary seat covers and cushions. As bound by The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (paragraph 2533.5), our board of trustees administered the bequest as requested. With thanks to that anonymous person, the board of trustees was in the position to move on the project, and so, a goal to do exactly that was moved to the “front burner.” My fellow trustees asked me to make one final attempt with American Seating before we researched other suppliers. I called, and without surprise to me, Julie was gone. This time, I talked with JoAnna Schroeder and I told her the entire story. She told me that everyone was wondering why a stray, tattered seat cushion was just laying around in her office. JoAnna told me that without question they would love to work with us and that... Julie was no longer with the company. She said she’d call back, and within two hours, she did. She told me that a sample seat was boxed and ready to ship to us for inspection. JoAnna went directly to the CEO and the Chief of Engineering for help. Julie apparently never told anyone about the sample I had previously sent and once she was gone, nobody knew who had sent the stray seat cushion that was floating around in the office. They had known nothing of our project but now they did, and they were thrilled to help us out.

Tom Straley’s ingenious press he built to compress the seats while the coverings were wrapped over the “teeth” on the steel frame. Joe & Sharon Brackett and Grace & Glenn Feyh operate the machine.
Tom Straley fine tunes the press as Pastor Steve and Grace Feyh prepare to recover another seat

Now, our project was in full gear. When the box arrived, we found the sample to be perfect! The new foam was formed to fit our existing seat bottom and the cover was an exact match to the 1956 seats. In July of 2013, we sent a down payment for the work, which would require five to six months to complete. With a few strokes of brilliance, we have new seats in our sanctuary!

Typically, American Seating arranges for installation with local contractors. But in the interest of keeping the expense down, and given the astonishing willingness of our congregation to help with such projects, I knew we could do it ourselves. The first stroke of brilliance came from trustee Tom Straley. With sample in hand, he engineered and built a press that we could use to compress the seats during the recovering process. Tom graciously donated his time, smarts, and effort to the cause. Tom’s contraption was, without question, the most important aspect of the seat recovering process. And the people at American Seating were impressed with it! They even said Tom’s press was under consideration for inclusion in their museum in Grand Rapids!

In early December (2013), I received communication that our replacement cushions and covers were ready for pick-up. The second stroke of brilliance came by way of trustee Jack Rowley, who is an employee of BST here in London. Through generous support from Jerry Alcott and BST, Jack was able to coordinate all the shipping details. Our shipment was picked up by BST, delivered to the BST facility, and offloaded with a fork lift, all with thanks and appreciation to Jack Rowley and Jerry Alcott. Jerry’s generosity saved our seat replacement endeavor nearly $700. Thank you, Jack, and thank you, Jerry!

Melinda Straley labels and numbers
Old foam and burlap spring covers

With cushions and covers delivered, a huge army of at least 52 volunteer church family members was ready to rock and roll. Here is our third stroke of brilliance! Throughout the endeavor, many came every night while many others came when they could. On Monday, December 16, with only nine days before Christmas Eve, the work began. Just from the number of seats in our sanctuary and the time it took to complete even just one seat, it seemed a daunting task. In a nutshell, here’s how it went: seat bases were removed, their old, tattered covers and cushions were removed and discarded, they were vacuumed and carefully cleaned, and then with Tom’s press ready to go, the tedious process of replacing the cushions and covers began. Meanwhile, a completely separate team of dedicated ladies and men washed the seat bases, all the nooks and crannies where the seat assemblies attach to the floor, all the wainscoting, and any reachable surface in the sanctuary. Our sanctuary has never been this clean! After only 30 minutes of practice, the process of installing the new cushions and covers was perfected. Henry Ford would have been proud to see our assembly line; it was a well-oiled machine! Each seat base was numbered, and to make sure each seat would be returned to its original location, its row and seat back also was numbered with the same corresponding number. Each individual seat’s parts were bagged and tagged with their appropriate number. After everything was clean and as each seat base was fitted with its new cushion and cover, another team reinstalled them. Daunting? Yes. Enjoyable and rewarding to participate? You bet.

Mick Harris, Dustin Dickerson, Dave Emrick, and Scott Higgens work the assembly line

The work continued each night through Saturday, December 21, when, at 1:00pm, every seat was installed. In celebration, everyone was treated to pizza in the parlor. We attained our goal of completing the seat replacement project by Christmas Eve 2013!

At the beginning of an era of new comfort at First United Methodist Church, it was amazingly simple to appreciate the quality of the 1957 American Seating cushions and seat coverings. Once the first seat was taken apart, this was very clear to us. Even though the old foam and burlap spring coverings and the visible upholstery had seen better days, consider their life. After 56 years (that’s roughly 2,912 Sundays of worship services), and all the additional seasonal worship services, countless weddings and funerals, and countless club meetings and special events, those seats truly did their job for our congregation. But in spite of the worn out textiles, all the nuts and bolts and seat bases still are in excellent condition. And today, the cushions and covers again are poised to serve our congregation of many, many years. Take a moment to think about the life of those seat covers, all the rich history they witnessed at our church. They witnessed many moments of great happiness and sadness, many occasions of joyful worship and celebration, and every moment of history in the life of our church since 1957.

The first seat restored seat installed

Sam Spahn and his friend, Burke Mayne, filmed portions of the seat replacement project and crafted it into an amazing and entertaining short "documentary." It really is an enjoyable chronicle of the entire process. The link is to a short film on You Tube. We have sent a copy to our friends at American Seating for their records.

One of the main sections of seats completely finished