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 paper...er...post, 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.