Organ pipes in the Sanctuary of First Church in Cambridge. A wrought iron chandelier hangs in the foreground.

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The Cockerel Has Landed!

November 16, 2023

The great gilded cockerel weathervane that has stood atop First Church in Cambridge for the last 150 years came down on November 15, 2023, to protect it from further damage caused by extreme weather, pollution, and its own venerable age. Under a bright blue sky, three men climbed into the basket attached to a giant crane and ascended about 100 feet. Hovering above the tip of the church’s bell tower, they carefully lifted the 172-pound cockerel from its perch and brought it down in the basket with them.

Once on the ground, the cockerel posed for photographs. Dan Smith, Senior Minister of First Church in Cambridge, offered a blessing. Then the cockerel was placed in a wooden crate custom-built to fit its dimensions — 5 feet 5 inches high and 5 feet 4 inches wide. Finally, the secured crate was lifted onto a secure truck and taken for temporary storage at a facility that specializes in the protection of works of art, which the cockerel is.

One expert called the First Church cockerel a “magnificent example of an American weathervane, but more so, a magnificent example of American vernacular sculpture.” The cockerel is actually 302 years old, created in 1721 for a church in Boston’s North End. It was made by Shem Drowne, the renowned coppersmith who also made the grasshopper weathervane atop Faneuil Hall.

An emergency decision to bring the much-loved cockerel down was made after drone video revealed significant erosion of the gilding and other damage to the cockerel’s surface. That unanimous vote by the church’s Executive Council followed extensive consultation with nationally recognized experts in the field of American Folk Art and historic weathervanes, who strongly advised removal as soon as possible.

Now that the cockerel is down, what happens next? That question is in the process of being answered. First Church in Cambridge is a Congregational church, which means that all major decisions, from approving an annual budget to calling a new minister, are made by the congregation as a whole. This has been First Church’s practice since it was “gathered in the Spirit” in 1636.

The Congregational process requires careful listening to many voices, thoughtful deliberation, and prayerful discernment. It also may require many meetings. The process to determine next steps for the cockerel is well under way. There have been listening sessions and input from church members and the public. There is still information to be gathered, such as an assessment of the cockerel’s current condition. There is more discussion to be had, but a framework of options is emerging.

First Church in Cambridge is located in the Old Cambridge Historic District, so it requested and received approval from the Cambridge Historical Commission to bring the cockerel down and place it in temporary safe storage. First Church will return to the Commission within six months with a final proposal for its ancient cockerel weathervane.

video by John MacGibbon