Thursday, July 29, 2010

All I wanted to do was send a two page fax

I've been around HCH for a really long time, like, a decade, (which is a 1/3 of my life now that I think about it), and there is a rule I have learned while working here that has always held true:  Nothing is ever easy.  My experience this morning illustrates this rule quite nicely. 

All I wanted to do was send a two page fax. 

The Communications Coordinator should be able to fax in her sleep.  She should be able to fax while she's typing an email and designing a flyer.  She should be able to fax when she's not even in the room by using some sort of Jedi mind control on the machine.  She should be more familiar with the fax machine than she is with the names of her children (honestly, who can keep four kids names straight anyway?).  Shoulda, woulda, coulda...nada.  There I stood, nervously hovering around my Director's desk where the fax machine sits, thumbing its nose at me with its fancy buttons, its fax and copy options, just waiting for me to fail.  I stood looking at it, mentally preparing myself to take it on.  "You can do this!"  I told myself, "Do not ask the Director for help, she is doing important Director work and you are the Communications Coordinator for goodness' sake!" I did not bother the Director, I asked the Business Manager for help instead. 

Even in this picture, it's taunting me

Our Business Manager stood there, smiling encouragingly at me and said, "The only thing with this fax machine is that if you're sending more than one page, you have to hold onto the second page and let it go at exactly the right moment or the machine will take both pages at once and then it will only fax the first page and you'll have to send the second page separately or do the whole thing all over again."  Her smile didn't waver although my nerves certainly did.  Seven minutes later I had successfully sent out about four faxes of the first page and finally one fax of the second page.  Case in point, Nothing is ever easy.

But what does this rule have to do with the restoration project?  As it turns out, a lot, and not in a, 'Duh, of course a restoration project is not going to be easy' type of way.  After my post last week I was feeling pretty proud of myself, I had all four phases of our restoration project memorized and could speak intelligently about them to anyone who asked.  At least I imagined I could speak intelligently about them although no one ever put me on the spot (this is not an invitation to put me on the spot, Director).  So when I sat down with said Director and the Curator for a summary of the pre-construction meeting that was held at the museum last Friday, I was feeling pretty confident that I understood the extent of what needed to be done.  Until they started talking.  Then I felt like 1/3 of my life was a nanosecond in time compared to the time spent listening to their "summary."

The first thing I learned is that we have our construction starting date, August 16th.  Yay!!!  Now technically it is not a set starting date.  What we really have is our tentative construction starting date, which is subject to change.  Let me start over, we have a date, that was given to us, which may or may not have anything to do with the start of construction work.  Yay.  Wait, one more try - August 16th is a Monday.

Okay.  Whatever date work does begin, the first order of business will be to remove the majority of our front porch, leaving only the stairs, (which are essential as a fire egress from the first floor of the building), and a small section of the north porch.  Western Building Restoration believes that they will be able to use the existing porch stairs instead of bringing in a floating metal staircase as was originally planned, but this has to be done without digging any footings for the stairs. Digging footings would then necessitate archaeological exploration which equals a lot more expense, and a delay in restoration work.  Also a section of the exterior clapboard siding on the east side of the house will be removed.  By removing the porch and the clapboard siding the entire east sill will be exposed, hopefully by Labor Day.  So far, so good, all as expected.

Front porch to be removed
Stairs to be retained for fire egress

Except that, this being HCH and the rule being Nothing is ever easy, it turns out there's a little problem.  Western had hoped to access the sill from the interior of the house.  Our Orientation Room, complete with permanently installed, not-going-anywhere-unless-you-want-to-take-it-down-with-a-sledge-hammer, Orientation Exhibit, and the South Kitchen (between which two rooms my "cozy" office is nestled) are located on the east side of the house.  The South Kitchen has beautiful beaded wood all over the walls and ceiling which Western is concerned about disturbing.  The Orientation Room's crazy-glued Orientation Exhibit is blocking two windows and may have to be taken down (read, demolished) for Western to gain access to the sill and windows.  Which means of course that at some future point there would be the expense of having the Orientation Exhibit rebuilt.  Say it with me folks, Nothing is ever easy.

Doomed Orientation Exhibit?
Windows blocked by Orientation Exhibit (note the color of shutters)

Then the Curator and Director began a lengthy discussion of paint analysis, (it's a toss up which would be more engrossing, watching paint dry or talking about paint analysis), in which they weighed the merits of analysis on its own, or paint analysis coupled with photographic documentation.  Paint analysis was performed on the shutters of the museum and produced a surprising result that now poses a problem for decision making.  We have photographic evidence from our interpretation period that seems to contradict the paint analysis findings.  How do we make the decision of which is the historically accurate paint color?  It's not an easy question to answer. (By the way, how does everyone feel about blue-gray shutters on the house? I can tell you how my Director feels about them) 

When the window work begins, after the sill restoration is completed, that process opens up another can of worms, or in light of our recent pest infestation, a trunk of moths.  It's not a huge one, but it will entail picking out every piece of window hardware that is to be installed as well as what finish would work best on said hardware for later painting.  The plan is to restore every window in the house, but as was pointed out at the meeting, there are two doors in the house which have windows and which were overlooked in the original window restoration plans.  In addition, a restoration project should be documented photographically.  But, since photographic documentation of the work was not included in the contract, we'll be dusting off our amateur photography skills and snapping away like we're tourists at the Grand Canyon.  All together now, Nothing is ever easy.

Okay, okay, I know, I can stop my bellyachin' and take that old adage, Nothing worthwhile comes easy and apply it to this situation.  Of course the process is a complicated one, and of course, unforeseen complications are more difficult than foreseen complications.  Did we think a simple paint analysis would spark a debate about the context in which the results are interpreted?  No we didn't.  But as annoying as these problems are (especially after over a year of trying to anticipate all the component parts of a restoration project like this one), they provide us with a challenge.  The challenge is to carry out an accurate and authentic restoration of the museum; to think outside the box; to look beyond the next five years and instead think of how our choices will hold up for the next 30 years; to think of more variables together when making a decision than we could ever have done alone; to accept that unforeseen problems will in all likelihood plague the entire restoration project.

But, then again, consider what the Director and Curator consider the biggest, most serious, unanticipated problem facing this restoration project that was brought up at the pre-construction meeting:   7am work day start time.  A 7am start time for a staff that can barely make it in for 9:15am morning coffee.  All the pep talks in the world aren't gonna make 7am look any prettier to the staff member driving with one eye open down 787, grumpy from lack of caffeine, hoping against hope that her car's clock is ten minutes fast.  I guess it bears repeating:  Nothing is ever easy.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

What's the first step again?

That's what I keep asking the Director of Historic Cherry Hill (HCH).  I have a bad habit of asking the same question over and over again until I get the answer firmly fixed in my mind.  In the interest of preserving my job and keeping the Director from experiencing skyrocketing blood pressure, I'm committing the first step to, so that no one, including myself, will forget the answer to my oft repeated question.

But what good is knowing what the first step is in fixing a problem (or in the case of HCH, multiple problems) if you don't know what the actual problem is?  You may have missed my subtle hint nestled in between the parentheses, so I'll spell it out for you.  Cherry Hill is facing multiple preservation issues that are kind of unavoidable in a house that is 223 years old and counting.

I bit the bullet, and sat down today with my Director over morning coffee to ask what that first step is going to be.  To say she was moved to tears when confronted with the level of ignorance displayed by her Communications Coordinator would be exaggerating.  Let's say instead that her response was one of disbelief.  "First step?"  she cried out.  Apparently I was oversimplifying the restoration process, something akin to saying that Rome was built in one day.  Everyone knows that it took Romulus and Remus a lot longer to build Rome, not to mention that Romulus killed Remus during construction.  My Director, while hoping to minimize the casualties involved in this process, made it clear that this restoration has been a long time in the making.  Try over a decade, and that's if you don't count a Historic Structure Report completed in the 1970s.

The technical answer to my question "What's the first step again?" or more appropriately, "What was the first step again?" is the completion of the Edward Frisbee Center for Collections and Research in 2003 which is a climate controlled facility in which a large number of the objects, manuscripts, textiles, books and photographs from the house are now stored.  This saved the structure of the house from the heavy weight of the collection which was quite literally buckling the walls of the house.

Got it boss, the first step of the restoration of HCH started ten years ago.

I decided to rephrase my question.  "What's the first step of this second phase of restoration work?"  This time my Director did cry a little and really, who could blame her?  I wanted to cry too but that could have been from hunger because I skipped breakfast this morning.  She indignantly explained that if I wanted to completely disregard the financial planning that has been going on for the past several years which includes the awarding of a National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge Grant to HCH (out of only seven total nationwide); gloss over HCH successfully meeting its first three benchmarks of the grant including the most recent one of $350,000, (all thanks to grants from organizations like New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), Environmental Protection Fund, Community Capital Assistance Program and the 1772 Foundation); and totally ignore the numerous visits made by the Director and Curator to to other historic sites that have undertaken significant restoration projects to learn from their experiences before embarking on our own...(here she took a long pause to catch her breath and sip her coffee before continuing)...then the first step was (still with that past tense!) when we hired Stephen Tilly, Architect, from Dobbs Ferry, New York to begin the planning for the actual restoration work. 

I hung my head, my whole being awash in shame and self-loathing.  Sick to my stomach, though, once again, that could have been because I skipped breakfast this morning.  How could I, the Communications Coordinator, be so totally ignorant of what turns out to be a very extensive, complicated, expensive project.  What would have happened if I had been asked to communicate this information to the public, or heaven forbid, coordinate said communication  at any point before this morning?   

As I sat there looking dejected, useless, and hungry, she continued with her lecture, saying that there would be four phases of the restoration process this time around.  The first will focus on the structural stability of the house which includes the deteriorated sill and corner posts.  The second phase will be "tightening the building envelope" involving window restoration, insulation and roof inspection and repairs.  The third phase will be one of environmental improvements like the installation of a fire detection and suppression system and modest environmental controls.  The final phase will be the "cosmetic" phase, restoring the finishes like repairing plaster walls, putting up new wallpaper, etc.  On June 30th, HCH accepted the bid of Western Building Restoration of Albany, New York and awarded all of the work in Phase 1 and part of Phase 2 to that firm. 

At long last my Director took pity on me and answered the question I guess I was really asking all along: "What's next?"  A pre-construction meeting with Stephen Tilly, Architect and Western Building Restoration will be held on Friday, July 23rd to agree on final details including a start date for restoration work, which should be sometime in the next four weeks.

I learned a lot today about this massive undertaking HCH is facing.  I learned about all of the hard work that goes into just planning to plan a restoration project.  There is a lot of careful consideration, and forethought that must go into a project like this.  We are in essence, restoring something that belongs not just to us (the staff and Board of Trustees of the museum), but to the public at large.  It is a weighty responsibility that HCH has shouldered with great respect for the preservation commitment it has taken on...I also learned that breakfast really is the most important meal of the day, do not skip it, you will be sorry and you will pay for it when you scarf down a bag of tortilla chips, and uncounted numbers of sugar cookies by lunch time.