NORTHAMPTON — In a unanimous vote, the Historical Commission decided to vote down a request to permanently remove a cupola from the St. John Cantius Church on 20 Hawley St. during its Feb. 26 meeting.

The decision comes after Sarah Stine, the vice president of O’Connell Development Group — the owner of the property — sent a letter to Sarah LaValley, the assistant director of Northampton’s Office of Planning and Sustainability, detailing how the cupola was in worse condition than imagined.

During the Feb. 26 meeting, Stine said the cupola — which is a large dome-shaped structure — was full of pigeon and bat guano that needed to be cleaned out. Once that was taken care of, O’Connell fully evaluated the cupola and found frame damage.

According to Stine, the structure was deteriorated by animals.

“Once access to the cupola was available, it became clear the metal shell of the cupola as well as the interior structure was in worse condition than previously understood,” read Stine’s letter to LaValley.

The structure in question is an octagonal cupola that was on the east end of the roof directly above the apse. A 2022 structure report said the cupola is made of galvanized sheet metal and has a ribbed copper dome with a metal cross placed on top of the dome.

Originally, the cupola was slated to be restored based on approved drawings put forth in March 2023, but these newfound conditions forced O’Connell to remove the cupola in November and place it in dry storage. O’Connell then requested that the cupola be permanently removed.

According to Stine’s letter, permanent removal of the cupola would be considered a major change within the exterior category of the Historical Restriction agreement, but it must be done.

“The damage to the cupola far exceeds what we expected when first preparing for the work of the building restoration,” Stine said in the letter. “There are many challenges associated with repurposing a historical former church building into multi-family housing, most of these challenges come down to budget and the amount of new housing which is controlled by the existing window openings. With regards to this one element which impacts neither the structure nor the quality of housing for future residents, we would like to request relief.”

GNCB Consulting Engineers, a Connecticut-based structural engineering firm that is working with O’Connell on the repurposing of the former church, determined that repairing the cupola was “not practical” and that “additional structural analysis would need to take place to evaluate how the cupola should be tied into the main structure of the building if it is to go back in place.”

The commission, however, decided during the Feb. 26 meeting that the cupola be repaired and reattached to the structure based on a review of the building’s historic preservation restriction.

“We’re in the realm of preservation law here in very specific, unfortunately, or not the Housing Commission or the Planning Commission or the City Council or Community Preservation Committee, and so I think we have, to my mind, a rather narrow technical question in front of it,” said Historical Commission member Steven Moga. “So, I see it … the cupola is a character-defining feature, and we should deny the request to permanently remove it from the church.”

Along with denying the permanent removal of the cupola, the commission also voted for O’Connell to stay in communication with the commission about the rehabilitation process at the church for the next five years.

According to Stine, estimated costs to repair the cupola are in excess of $100,000. Additional costs will need to be incurred to structurally secure the cupola within the framework in the building.

During her presentation on Feb. 26, Stine also said that the reattachment of the cupola would require structural changes with the interior of the building.

These conversations come a little over a year after the city of Northampton gave O’Connell $500,000 in Community Preservation Act funding for exterior repairs and preservation of the St. John’s Cantius Church.

In 2010, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield closed the church at Hawley Street and Phillips Place after a myriad of parish consolidations.

Afterward, several groups put forth failed redevelopment plans for the church, which was built in 1913 by Polish Catholic immigrants. O’Connell Development in Holyoke eventually purchased the property for $1.26 million.

O’Connell initially said they would preserve the church and put townhouses around it, but COVID-19 put a dent in that plan, so the development group applied to demolish the church entirely for five units of three-story houses for 10 Hawley St.

After pushback from Northampton’s Polish-American community about the possibility of the church’s demolition, O’Connell returned with a redevelopment plan for the church in the spring of 2022, which includes a $4.6 million project to build market-rate apartments.