Tuesday, August 31, 2010

For your viewing pleasure

I apologize for not updating the restoration blog last week, but I promise there will be a new post up by the end of this week.  In the meantime I encourage you all to check out the following link.  The video you will see was inspired by this blog. 



Thursday, August 19, 2010

Operation: Garbage Retrieval

I have to apologize.  I'm afraid I may have mislead you all when I made the bold statement last week that the Director is a magician.  It turns out...not so much.  The proof of her muggleness being August 16th (which, in case any of you forgot, was a Monday).  Turns out what I naturally assumed was magical ability apparently is only a combination of luck and talent.  (All the more disappointing because I thought she was going to be able to finally grant me my ultimate childhood wish - to ride on a unicorn.  I never wanted to own one - you can imagine what an expense that would be plus the whole liability aspect of the thing, what with the horn and everything)

Monday, August 16th arrived.  That's it, that's all I have to say about it - Monday, August 16th arrived.  Tuesday, August 17th arrived and I did see a truck that may have been related to Western Building Restorations, Inc. pulling out of the driveway as I turned in to make the long haul up the hill (It's not called Cherry Hill for nothing).  August 18th arrived but I didn't because I wasn't in that day, but I was assured that nothing happened.  August 19th arrived and bam! - now we were cooking with gas because as I drove up the hill to park in my usual parking spot I was greeted by a sight that never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would find so attractive and welcoming - a silver chain link fence.  That beautiful specimen of metal work (has anyone really taken the time to truly appreciate the links of a chain link fence?) stood in place, ringing the front section of the porch.  But not only was there a fence, but by golly by gosh there was a real live truckish-sort of vehicle (cars have never been my thing) with a, be still my beating heart, a real live employee from Western Building.  In my excitement, I grabbed my purse, got out of my car, (got back in my car to put the car in park), jumped back out of the car and circled around the back end all the while grinning idiotically as I sought eye contact and once having gotten it, gave a booming hello.  Judging from the confused and slightly alarmed look on the man's face I realized my enthusiasm was a bit overdone so I tried to reign it in and settle for a more normal expression, unfortunately I think I only succeeded in looking like someone suffering from partial paralysis of the face as I tried to keep my lips from smiling while talking at the same time.

Can you see the morning sun glinting off of the metal loveliness?

(I'm sorry I just have to take a moment to sit and listen to the melodic sounds of plaster being removed from the interior wall of our South Parlor on the floor above me...and I'm back)

I entered the building to find my Director sitting at the table in the volunteer room, or perhaps it would be better to describe her as being held up by the table in the volunteer room.  She fixed me with a bleary-eyed look and explained (because the Director does not complain...never...ever) that she had been at the museum since "7:45!"  Now I'll admit that I wasn't very impressed, especially because my morning started at 6:23am with me waking up to the weight of my soon-to-be three year old son sitting on my spinal cord and cheerfully inquiring, "When mommy's done sleeping then I can have cereal?"  But I did my best to look sympathetic and understanding.  I think I must have emoted the right mixture of both, because the Director seemed to perk up a little (that could have something to do with the IV bag of coffee that was producing a steady drip of caffeine into her veins which was weird but since she didn't mention it, I didn't ask about it) then informed me that the chain link fence I was so enamored with went up this morning and that the construction guy, we'll call him Big D, would begin to remove the interior plaster from the North and South Parlors of the house today.

And what's more, he actually did.  Trust me, I know because I've been hovering around him with a camera in my hand like some crazed Justin Bieber fan and probably scaring the h-e-double hockey-sticks out of him in the process.  Trying to learn from my disastrous first attempt to talk with an honest to goodness restoration worker, I approached him a second time, with a slightly less psychotic smile on my face, introduced myself, asked if he minded me taking pictures and then, because when I'm feeling a little self-conscious I tend to uncontrollably spew forth unfiltered sentences,  I announced that I was probably going to be bothering him "with lots and lots and lots" (no exaggeration folks, I really did say 'lots and lots and lots') of questions and then proceeded to bother him with lots and, well you get the point, questions.  Luckily he was able to choke back his fear of the crazy lady in front of him, and explained that he would ultimately be removing the plaster from the two parlors, as well as both sides of the front door, from just under the windows down to the base boards.  According to the construction schedule provided by Western, the work of removing the interior plaster in those locations, as well as exposing the front facade of the house by removing the exterior siding will take place over the next week or so.  As it turns out the porch demolition won't be taking place till closer to Labor Day.

Preparation for removal of interior wall plaster in the South Parlor

At one point, when Big D was out of the house I slunk back upstairs, to take pictures without running the risk of freaking him out even more than I had already managed to do that day.  The Curator and the Intern joined me and we examined the work done so far.  The baseboard had been removed and the nogging (rough brick masonry used to fill in the gaps in a wooden frame, to function as another source of structural support) was exposed.

The visible brick masonry work is what those in the know call  "nogging"
Our goal is to reuse as many of the original materials as possible.  Therefore the baseboards will be kept safe to be reinstalled at a later date and the Curator informed me that lath (narrow thin strips of wood used as the backing for plaster) that is removed will be reused to the greatest extent possible.  Of course her information exposed the depth of my ignorance concerning lath and plaster techniques, so I sheepishly asked her how that all worked again (I like to add in 'again' at the end of my questions, because it implies that at some point I did know the full explanation for the question I'm asking, but for some inexplicable reason can't recall it at the moment). 

She explained that the lath is nailed in strips to the studs across the length of the wall.  Once the lath is in place, an initial, binding coat of plaster (which is full of rough particles like animal hair) is smeared against the lath, the rough particles in the plaster are necessary for the first coat to adhere to the wood.  Then a couple more layers of plaster are applied on top of that first rough coat so that by the last coat there is a smooth finish in place. 

Big D then is removing the coats of plaster which of course are covered by the existing wall paper, and hopefully the remaining lath will be reusable. 

Have you no shame madam? - The exposed lath of the South Parlor

I don't know if the hardware, (i.e. nails) will be recycled as well, but clearly it's made of strong stuff having hung out in the walls for a couple of hundred years. 

These were the only two nails that were keeping the whole east side of the house from collapsing (note - totally lying for dramatic effect here, give me a break, how else do you make a picture of old nails exciting?)
I never expected the first day of real construction work to go off without some unexpected problem turning up.  That's what makes the process exciting to talk about.  I was not wrong.  Very quickly it became apparent to our Facilities Support Assistant/Program Assistant (FSA/PA for short, which it is not)  that there was a potential hostage situation in the works.  The chain link fence that has Cherry Hill under temporary house arrest (pun intended) is also holding our garbage can, and several rotting lawn bags of weeds and leaves hostage under the stairs.  We have been unable to establish communication with them at this point, but we have gotten some glimpses of them through the fence. 

In this surveillance photo you can just make out the huddled forms of the hostages
They look about as well as you can expect a garbage can and rotting lawn bags to look under the circumstances.  They're holding up, but who knows how long they'll last.  The FSA/PA bravely offered to scale the chain link fence after a brief reconnoitering mission.  But gathered around the table in the volunteer room we discovered a logistical problem that threatened the whole mission - once inside, how do you get the hostages out without making a mess an alley cat would love?  Turns out the whole thing was an overreaction on our part as a quick conversation with Big D revealed that the gate will open in the front to allow access to the porch and the areas under the porch.  Stand down staffers, I repeat, stand down.

On a serious note, it's exciting to see the real construction work begin...to touch studs of wood that haven't been exposed in a couple of generations of Cherry Hill family members...to ponder whether two nails we're holding in our hands are of 18th or 19th century origins.  But as thrilling as it all is, I promise to continually fight the very strong impulse I have to ask Big D if he has a spare construction hat that I could wear while I'm at work, or at least wear while asking him lots and lots and lots of questions.  It's tough, because I think I could pull off the whole construction hat look, but I am going to try to quell the urge.

The following is a prepared statement from the Communications Coordinator:
There have been some aspersions cast on my posting from last week which included what one board member referred to as my "deifying of the Director."  I want to emphasize that I was in no way attempting to negotiate an increase in salary from the said Director and Board (no matter what I might have hoped for in my heart of hearts).  Having worked in the non-profit world for long enough, believe me when I say that I am perfectly aware that a monetary raise is a little harder to come by than just penning a flattering ode to a Director.  In fact I am perfectly content with the system of "raises" practiced here at Cherry Hill, that includes but is not limited to, receiving an update in computer software from Microsoft Office 95 to Microsoft Office 2007, or trading in one old secondhand desk chair for a less old secondhand desk chair.  By my estimates, I may be the highest paid staff person on paper. 

Friday, August 13, 2010

Get your bad hair styles and your pencils and papers ready....

I'm feeling a little lost this week.  My Director has taken off for a week's vacation and left the rest of the staff to fend for themselves.  This may not have been the smartest move on her part considering the maturity level of some of her staffers (check out Historic Cherry Hill's facebook page today for our weekly curatorial curiosity - we were supposed to use a collection item to stump our fans with but instead we decided to play "Where in the world is The Director?").  But the woman deserves a break!  It's not the easiest job in the world to manage a museum, from the regular day to day stuff like attending meetings and signing membership renewal letters...to the more challenging tasks of finding new ways for the museum to stay relevant to the public and to secure funding to ensure the museum's continued cultural contributions to the community...to reigning in her at times ridiculous and always unruly staff - I'm all for the Director getting some rest and relaxation.  (Don't get me wrong, I'm still sending her daily emails always with the caveat, 'We can talk when you get back' or 'I hate to bother you during your time off, but...').  The fact of the matter is that my Director is the backbone of HCH, and when she's absent it's kind of like a spinal injury for the museum.  You begin to question how it is that we're still able to function without her stabilizing presence.  (I'm sorry Director, but "commanding presence" just won't work with the analogy I will soon make.)

Cherry Hill's architectural style is Georgian with a timber frame construction, typical of the time period in which it was built (1787 to be exact).  It's sometimes called post and beam construction.  The posts (vertical supports) and the beams (horizontal supports) of the frame sit on the sills of the house.  Sills are large beams that sit atop the foundation walls of the structure and bear the weight of the wooden frame.  In the case of Cherry Hill certain factors from the physical environment (when we're feeling particularly juvenile and sorry for ourselves we call them "museum enemies") have compromised parts of the sill.  For instance, exposure to water over the years has caused parts of the sill as well as the bases of some posts that would normally rest on the sill, to rot.  Add to this the fact that the family used the garret as the resting place for the large number of their (heavy) possessions, the weight of which exerted a 100 lb, force per square foot on a floor designed to withstand 30 lbs of force per square foot and you will better comprehend the resultant structural problems

Timber Frame Construction

Now jump in my hot tub time machine and travel with me to a point in the distant past when you were sitting in a room full of other nervous, and perhaps smelly, teenagers, diligently going question by question through your SAT.

The Director:HCH :: (translation The Director is to HCH as...)
A. cheese fries and beer are to the Communications Coordinator
B. the sill is to the post and beam construction of Cherry Hill
C. coffee is to the Cherry Hill staff
D. a hypothesis:dog

If you chose B you are correct and probably scored really high on the verbal component of your SAT (if you are like me, that also means you scored abysmally low on the math component of your SAT).  If you chose A you are now aware of what the Communications Coordinator considers the two vital food groups that provide her with nourishmentIf you picked C you were close, that choice was intended to throw you off because it seems at times as if coffee is a stabilizing necessity to the continued existence of the HCH staff.  If you chose D you probably scored really high on the math component of your SAT.

A further elaboration of the correct answer:  My Director is like the sill on which the post and beam frame of the house sits.  Without her steadying, un-rotted presence HCH would be (like the posts of the actual house structure are) floating in air. 
She's a magician who can pull things out of her Buffalo Sabres magic hat, like funding for operational costs and restoration efforts when there is no earthly reason why those funds should appear.  Maybe it's the house which has rubbed off on her - things happen here all the time that defy explanation and reason, like, why is the east side of the house still standing? (Actually I can answer that.  According to our structural engineers we don't have to worry because the porch is holding up the posts which are rotted at the bottom and no longer resting on the sill and the lath and plaster of the walls are actually holding up the east side wall of the house.  Right, no need to worry folks, the house is being saved from collapse by things that were never designed to save it from collapse. If that doesn't defy reason...).  Or why is that pane of glass floating in thin air instead of smashed into little pieces on the ground in front of the window?

Magical Window Pane

Maybe it's the little makeshift voodoo shrine she set up in her office to which she makes monetary offerings in hopes the gods will show favor to HCH.  Maybe it's her borderline unhealthy fascination with all things Harry Potter.  Or maybe it's because she is a Red Sox fan and she grew up believing in curses and things of that nature.  I just don't know.  I don't have any answers.  All that I do have is the ability to dedicate my post this week to the magical talents of the Amazing Director without whom Cherry Hill would be just another 220-plus-year-old Georgian house with structural issues and an enormous collection, stuck up a certain type of creek without the requisite paddle.
Director of HCH Construction

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Results guaranteed, or your money back!

"At some point it will start to fall apart."  The Curator warned in a matter-of-fact tone.  Not exactly a comforting statement to hear when "it" refers to the early 19th-century four-post bed that I was supporting as she spoke.  But since she is the "object" person, if the fact that a piece of collection was facing total collapse didn't make her start to hyperventilate, then it couldn't be all that bad.  As I tightened my hold on the bed in question, my Director rather zealously plowed ahead, ignoring the dire sounding prediction, loosening the bolts that held this piece of furniture together, expressing her optimistic belief that everything would be fine, and that three people were enough to disassemble a heavy wooden bed.  (Did I mention there were posts involved here?  Tall posts?  And four of them?)  Moments later the Curator's Nostradamus-like prophecy began to come true and we resembled players in a game of Twister as we struggled to keep the bed from coming apart.  The Director yelled for HCH's long-suffering Collections Intern, "Laura, we're gonna need you in a minute!"  And by minute, she really meant second, and by second she really meant - Right Now!

The curator is right.  It takes four people to disassemble a heavy, wooden, four-post bed.  It also takes a Curator the experience of more than a year of disassembling pieces of furniture and packing them away to keep her composure in the face of the imminent break down of a large and heavy collection piece.



Since April 2009, the Curator, along with her various Curatorial Interns, (and in some capacity or another - volunteers, the Director, the Facilities Support Assistant, the Education Director, the Education Director's Intern, the Board President, a Board Member, plus me) has been tirelessly tackling one of the biggest pre-construction jobs facing the museum:  Packing up the 3,000 exhibited objects that currently take up residence in every available space, of every room of the house.  I have been called on several times over the past couple of months to aid in the disassembly of some piece of furniture or other, or to unload huge sheets of cardboard off a delivery truck.  (I flatter myself to assume I was needed because of my amazing physique, rippling muscles and towering height, although I suspect that it could just be because I was within shouting distance and met the minimum requirement of having full use of my arms and legs). 

The Curator has been faced with the monumental (and I don't think it is an exaggeration to use the word monumental) task of preparing collections for the impending construction work.  I don't know if I have made it clear in any of my previous posts how big the scope of HCH's restoration project is, but this is a big ol' project that is going to affect every part of the house, both inside and out, every floor, every room.  If you've ever been to HCH you know that this museum has never suffered from a lack of objects (and when confronted with a box full of empty boxes that our collection policy dictates we must preserve forever, some on the staff may argue the opposite).  We pride ourselves on the extent of our collection, but pride goeth before the fall, and the fall in this case is having to figure out how to protect 3,000 objects from possible destruction during restoration work.

The packing started over a year ago, but the planning for packing began before that.  The site visits the Curator and Director made during the course of the restoration planning included taking into account how each site dealt with their onsite collections that would be smack dab in the middle of construction work.  There are basically two options, either remove the objects from the site and store them in an off-site storage area (let's call that "too expensive for us option #1"), or keep the collection onsite and devise a way of protecting them from the work that would be done around them (call that "our only option #2").  For instance at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site in Buffalo, NY, carpenters were able to construct mini-rooms of plywood within the larger room where work would be done.  Their collection was then stored within the mini-rooms and protected from the effects of construction.

If we chose "our only option #2", the packed collection would need to be moveable.  For instance, some parts of the floors will be refinished, therefore any collection boxed in a room where refinishing will take place, should be ready to be removed from the room.  Anne Cassidy, Collections Manager of the New York State Bureau of Historic Sites, who managed both Olana and Lorenzo State Historic Sites' collections packing during their restoration projects, suggested the use of cardboard for packing up the objects.  No, not the type of cardboard box you buy at Lowe's to pack up your box of 1990s music cd's that for some reason you feel the need to keep although you never, ever listen to them.  Instead it would be the type of double wall cardboard that comes in sheets of 96" x 48", that takes two people to carry more than two sheets at a time, and that is as unwieldy as a professional wrestler performing the dance of the sugar plum fairy.

For HCH's purposes, the Curator and Director decided on "our only option #2", and felt that cardboard would be the most appropriate material for our packing needs for several reasons.  It was easier to work with, the double wall cardboard would offer reasonable protection and it would allow for the objects to be moved once boxed up.  Objects are wrapped in either acid free tissue or Tyvek, a soft, non-abrasive, inert spunbonded olefin (say that ten times fast) which basically means it is tear resistant, mold, mildew and water resistant and protects against dust and dirt.  The wrapped object is then packaged in cardboard.  The Curator's goals in packing were to buffer the objects from radical changes in the environment, like when a window is removed, a spike in humidity will not affect the object; to keep dust and debris off of the objects; to buffer the collection from accidental contact with construction workers or construction materials.  If a worker accidentally puts a hammer down on a box, the cardboard is a thick and strong enough barrier to protect the object underneath.  The boxes have to be custom made.  The cardboard, as I mentioned before, come in really large, rectangular shaped sheets.  This is where plain old ingenuity and a box cutter come in, and honestly, the Curator and her minions have made some true works of art.  (I'm partial to the ten-sided cardboard box that houses the dining room table, you may have another favorite).  The custom made boxes with the nicely wrapped objects inside are resting on either cardboard pads or furniture blankets which act as the "wheels" of the box and are "surprisingly moveable" as the Curator said.

My personal favorite - the decagon (that's a fancy word for ten-sided)-shaped cardboard box housing the dining room table

"Surprisingly moveable"
Before a single object could be boxed, a detailed inventory was taken of every room.  Photographs of every room, as well as of every object to be packed were also taken.  As objects are disassembled the pieces are labeled individually before being boxed, and now await the opportunity to torture future interns and staff members with the task of reassembling the furniture.

In all the hubbub of planning a restoration, securing funds, meeting with architects and contractors, the packing can easily get overlooked.  It's not as sexy to talk about boxing up a chair as it is to talk about the floating posts of the exterior wall of the house which are literally being held up in thin air (clearly I've been in the restoration and museum world too long if either of those things can be considered sexy), but no work can be done in the house until the collection stored within is secured and protected.  Despite the limitations on money and resources, the Curator has provided the best quality protection for the museum's objects and her timely efforts enable the construction work to begin.  Incidentally, she is thinking of marketing a boot-camp weight loss program, (working title - Box Your Way to Thin) out of this experience because if you think lifting heavy furniture, disassembling beds, cutting through double wall cardboard, scrambling through an obstacle course of boxed objects in small rooms, all in 80+ degree heat and 60% plus humidity isn't going to give you that beach body you've always wanted, you haven't seen her interns.
Box Your Way Thin - Results Guaranteed, or your money back!