Fred Riley is fixing the crumbling roof at the First United Methodist Church of Highland

(Photos by Erin Quinn)

Former Town of Lloyd building inspector Fred Riley has made it his mission to fix the crumbling roof of the First United Methodist Church of Highland on Vineyard Avenue almost single-handedly. This house of worship was built in 1869 and has long served as the centerpiece of the hamlet. Having weathered many a storm, and at least three roofs later, the church steeple was about to collapse before Riley stepped in and decided to do something about it.

While serving as a building inspector for Lloyd, local resident and historian Ethan Jackman mentioned to Riley that if something wasn’t done, the church roof was going to collapse. “So, I made a point when I did the fire inspection to venture up to the top of the steeple, and it was worse than I could have imagined.” What Riley, who has owned Riley Construction since 1978, found were rotted beams, holes in the roof, a steel bell that was about to fall through to the pews below, trees and weeds growing, water damage, gutters facing the wrong direction, hatches that pointed towards the valley of the roof instead of away from the valley and fascia so chewed up that it was falling to pieces, not to mention three to four inches of  turkey vulture droppings.

At one point the church, realizing that the roof needed repair, had gone out to bid and was given an estimate of $55,000. “That was just to replace the roof on the steeple!” said Riley. “That did not include getting the inside of the steeple structurally sound. The church doesn’t have that kind of money.”

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Fred Riley

Being the conscientious, kind and crafty man that he is, Riley decided to take matters into his own hands. “So often people say, ‘Why doesn’t God help?’ And I love the response in one of my favorite songs that says, ‘God did help: He created you.’” “I’m blessed to be given the talent and abilities I have to do this kind of work,” he added.

Before he could get started on such a large project, he went around to some local businesses to see if he could get their support. “Brooks and Brooks made a large donation, and then Williams Lumber and Mountainside Woods all helped me with the beams, the wood, the shingles, the aluminum fascia I needed.”

He said that he was “honored that people wanted to support me and this project.” The ironic thing is, Riley is not even a member of the church, nor is he a resident of Lloyd. He’s actually a resident of Modena and was a trustee on the Methodist Church board in Modena and New Paltz, but not Lloyd.

The Highway Department contributed the use of two large steel plates for him to set his rented Ultra Boom JLG 125-foot lift to carry him to the outside of the steeple: by far the tallest building in Lloyd. In fact, it is the lift that is the most expensive part of his undertaking. “That lift [from United Rentals] costs $8,400 for a monthly rent,” he said. “Robert Peplow of Accent Communication helped me out a great deal in securing the rental, because I couldn’t put that entire thing on my credit card.”

As he talked about the lift, the late afternoon sunlight was melting down the large panes of stained glass cut into the red brick side of the church. One single cloud, stretched like a piece of cotton from a worn blanket, slid behind the steeple, anchoring two curtains of deep blue sky. “It’s the visual epicenter of our town,” said Vivian Wadlin, a member of Lloyd’s Historic Preservation Committee, who happened to be on her way home from a dinner in the hamlet. “We’re so thrilled he’s doing this. There are so many people who have been married here or who have been mourned here. It holds a special place in people’s hearts. It’s also a historically beautiful building. Inside there are original Tiffany glass shades.”

Riley carefully brought the New Paltz Times through the wooden staircases and hatches that led to the belly of the belltower. He carefully pointed out the new beams he had installed, the hatches and new fascia he had replaced, as well as the support beams. As the climb became steeper, the soft light seeping through the stained glass grew haloed. “There’s one rod that operates the four clocks on each side of the steeple,” he said, mesmerized by the brilliant antiquity of the building. “And look at this hatch in the floor. That was put there to haul this bell up!”

According to Riley, the original building had a slate roof, which was replaced two times by a wooden shingled roof. “I put plywood underneath it, so this time the shingles will last longer — I hope!”

The clock is ticking, both on the church tower and in terms of the rented lift and the plane that Riley has to catch on September 14 to California to attend his son’s wedding. “I’m pretty much here from morning until sunset,” he said, glancing out of a hatch in the steeple that offers an outrageous view of the entire downtown and Illinois Mountain.

While he was doing the bulk of the interior work — literally hundreds of hours’ worth — the heat and humidity were at their worst. “The heat was treacherous the last two weeks,” he said. “And there were thunderstorms that came rolling through, too. So, this drop in temperature has been a great relief to me. And the birds have been very kind, because I have a bird fear!” 

The cost of the work, with the majority being the rental of the lift, is approximately $10,000. With the help of the local businesses mentioned and the Wadlins, plus the contribution from the church itself, Riley is only about $2,000 shy of being able to pay for the materials and rental. There is no amount too great or too small to help this one man’s crusade to ensure the longevity, safety and structural integrity of the historic First Methodist Church. To donate, people can send a check to the church earmarked for this project, or they can go to the church’s Facebook page where there is link to a GoFundMe at www.facebook.com/1479652709018835/posts/please-share-thank-you/2332213190429445.

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