Custom-built church spire to arrive in St. Peter

ST. PETER, Minn. (AP) — Early next week, a truck convoy will leave Somerset, Wis., with a precious cargo for Gustavus Adolphus College.
It’ll be a 175-foot church spire, custom built to replace one destroyed by the tornado that struck the school’s chapel and ripped through this southern Minnesota city March 29.
An entourage of three semis, several other large trucks, two massive trailers and escort vehicles with flashing lights will carry what’s been Tom Morken’s high-stress pride and joy.
Morken is an engineer for Stillwater Metals of St. Paul, which took on the unenviable task of reconstructing the spire from scratch.
“This is horribly complicated. It’s been an engineering nightmare,” Morken said, groping for words to describe it.
“Nothing is parallel. There are no right-angle corners. It’s a six-sided, boomerang-shaped steeple,” he said at the company’s Somerset plant, where two finished spire sections await moving day.
In the hubbub of the days after the tornado struck, the old spire’s remains were hauled away with other debris to points unknown.
That left Morken and his architects with nothing tangible to study, save for the 1958 blueprints held by the structure’s original design firm, Setter Leach & Lindstrom of Minneapolis. The firm did its best to sleuth out the details based on old documents and photographs.
“At first, when people saw the plans they told me, ‘You’re crazed. Where are you even going to start something like this?'” Morken said. “There’s a high risk of failure on a job like this. Ninety-nine percent of the companies out there wouldn’t take this job.”
Morken, who engineers everything from bus-stop kiosks to skyscraper embellishments, said the spire ranks with the five most complicated projects he’s worked on. The spire is a steel frame encased in aluminum sheathing. It has more than 7,000 parts and, because of its asymmetry and odd angles, no two parts are alike.
New technology gives the spire far more strength than the original. But even that can only go so far. The new spire is designed to withstand winds of 110 to 130 mph. The March 29 storm produced winds up to 200 mph.
The spire is scheduled to be raised atop the 40-year-old Christ Chapel in three sections starting early next week. The $320,000 project will culminate with a ceremony Thursday, Oct. 22, when the cross is placed atop the spire.
Morken said he usually doesn’t involve himself with the ceremonial aspects of his work, but this time he’s making an exception. Engineering the project took a big piece out of him, he said, and he’d like to have a hand in bolting the cross in place.
He patted an aluminum spire panel and spoke as if he were a proud mentor musing upon a difficult but gifted charge.
“I’m tired of looking at it, but in its own right, it’s very impressive.”