Friday, September 24, 2010

More of the Same

It’s probably not a good sign when I approach Big D and The Hammer for a work update and they scurry for cover. And let me tell you, these guys tower over me and I’m about 5’9” - it’s not easy for them to scurry (and it’s also pretty obvious when they try and hide behind one of the posts of the deck). They probably view my weekly visit as something akin to a root canal – painful. Not only do they have to put up with my vapid smiles and vacant stares, they have to try and explain things to me with crayon drawings because real construction plans are too advanced for my simple eyes. It’s not easy for me either, you can imagine my own feelings of trepidation when I walk out the door of the museum and around the corner to interrupt their work and ask my questions. At least they’re good-natured about it (once it’s clear they can’t escape)…when Big D spied me through the chain link fence Wednesday morning he greeted me with a deadpan “Not you again!” He was joking, I think, although, he didn’t really smile afterwards and he did pantomime hanging himself to The Hammer when he thought I wasn’t looking. Thankfully they didn’t have to explain any new concepts to me this week – it was just more of the same work. They’re still working on shoring up the east façade of the house to conduct their repairs to the exterior posts and studs. I forgot to specify something last week. All of the interior repairs they have completed thus far as well as the shoring and planned exterior repairs they are working on now are on the north side of the east facade at this point. There is still the south side of the east façade to get to, and when they do, they will be starting the process all over again! And there are still those darn windows to restore, all 49 of them. But that’s another tale, for another day.

Oh where, oh where has our little porch gone?
Oh where, oh where can it be?

Oh, there it is, neatly stacked.

These are called lally columns. 

The needle beams (shown here perpendicular to the house) are anchored to the lally columns.

Interior view from the north parlor showing where the end of the needle beam pokes into the room.  

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Ode to Fall

I love fall. I love apples, sweaters, cider doughnuts, pumpkins, Halloween, Halloween candy, beef stew, oatmeal. I love fall. (That was my lame attempt at a haiku…I know it’s not a haiku but that’s because I didn’t pay attention in English class when we learned about them…which is a sad commentary on the length of my attention span if I can’t make it through a haiku). While the calendar hasn’t officially declared fall yet, the crisp bite in the wind and the falling leaves show us what Mother Nature suggests we can do with our calendars – advance them forward by a few days. Why? What were you thinking?

There is another thing I like about the fall (surprisingly, it doesn’t involve food) – fall cleaning. Yes I admit it – I enjoy spring and fall cleaning. But let me be clear, it doesn’t mean that I am a regular practitioner of the biannual tradition - I’m lucky if I can get my kids cleaned twice a week, let alone my house thoroughly cleaned from top to bottom twice a year. Still, I enjoy the feeling I have after a job well done, a house well cleaned. This fall, I turned that love of cleaning and organizing towards my Director’s office. My Director turned me back towards the door. But I persisted and after a couple more knocks on her door and a pretend phone call from a senator who had a bucket of money he was looking to spend on a historic house (how did she fall for that one in this financial and political climate?), I was able to distract her for a moment and sneak into her office while she hung up the phone in disgust.

Gesturing to her current “organizational system” which consists of stacks of papers sitting on every level and unlevel surface available in the office she shares with the Business Manager, I suggested it was time to clean out her files and organize her space. After a lot of discussion back and forth, the Director agreed to a fall cleaning. (If I was talking with any other person, I would categorize the “discussion” as foot-stomping and pouting on the Director’s part and stony determination on my part.) Once the dirty work of going through file drawer after file drawer began, the Director started to second guess the advisability of following through with the job, and to fearfully question whether this was the right thing to do. My answer was, it’s too late to go back now.

There’s a point to my rambling, I promise. When I arrived at work this morning, I commented on the work Big D and his partner in restoration, Joey the Hammer, (totally made up nickname, just thought it went well with Big D), were doing. In the midst of the discussion, the Director began to voice her sudden fears about the whole restoration undertaking, asking herself more than me, “Are we doing the right thing?” She knew the answer to her own question: We don’t have any choice. We have to address the structural issues facing this house. We have to resort to these serious measures because these are serious problems. She got a handle on her fears and went back to trying to renegotiate the timetable for the fall cleaning of her office. (It has suddenly dawned on me that her restoration fears may not have been real but instead may have been a means to delay the inevitable continuation of office organization.)

Stall tactic or not, as I inspected the restoration work - more closely following our conversation, I had a better understanding of the Director’s sudden doubts. When I walked into the north parlor of the house, I could see clear through the wall to the sun-shiny world outside. And no, the accidental inhaling of radioactive plaster dust did not give me the superhero power of seeing through walls (although the accidental inhaling of plain old plaster dust, which is floating in the air in liberal amounts, has given my airways a white-washed look). The reason I could see through the lower portion of the wall was because the wall was not there. The brick nogging has been removed from between the posts and the room is exposed to the elements. I don’t know how anyone could avoid the moment of panic and second-guessing a scene like that generates. Particularly when one works in a historic house where shoes with pointy high heels are not worn because of the soft pine wood floors. (If you do wear pointy high heels you walk around on your tip-toes like an overgrown fairy, lest a heel should come in contact with the pine wood surface.)

Enjoy the panic inducing view!

The interior studs are shown here with their dutchman repairs.  The dark colored wood is original, the light colored wood beneath is the new wood.  The long piece of light colored wood to the left of the repaired original probably provided support while the repairs were being done.

This is a picture taken a couple of weeks ago which shows the new pieces of wood used for the dutchman repairs to the interior studs prior to their installation - each piece of wood was cut to size to fit with a specific interior stud.

Putting on my investigative blogger hat (a truly hideous looking thing) and my “I swear there are some functioning brain cells in my head” face, I approached Big D and The Hammer. Interrupting their work, I asked if they would mind explaining what they were doing. They didn’t mind at all, Big D and The Hammer are very accommodating guys. They explained what they had done thus far as well as what their next steps would be. I warmly thanked them and trotted back downstairs to my little cave, sat down in front of the computer and couldn’t remember a single thing they told me. I tried my best to write down what they said but when I read over my first sentence, ‘They will use a [blank] thing and also a needle[?] to keep the house from falling.’ I knew there was no help for it - I had to bother them again.

Back outside I went, to take pictures and figure out how I could get them to repeat everything they just told me, without letting on that I had the memory of a small sieve. Luckily Big D was able to interpret the clueless look on my face and checked to make sure I understood what was happening. That was all the opening I needed, and in the next minute I was under the porch with the guys, looking at c channel beams, listening to Big D patiently explain things a second time. From the blankness of my stare it was apparent that the lights were on but no one was home. Luckily the ever resourceful Hammer grabbed the construction drawings and visually showed me what they were doing. Then I got it! Finally! Until I got back to my desk and promptly forgot the names of all the materials being used. I put a call in to my engineer husband (no way was I going back outside to bother them a third time), and he, more than familiar with my mental limitations, verified my understanding of the process. Once I hung up the phone with him, I felt pretty confident. That confidence hitched a ride out of the museum as I tried to explain the process to the Director and the Curator - several torn sketches and a few tears of frustration later – they got it.

This is the area under the front porch where Big D and The Hammer tried to explain their work to me for the second time.  Did I mention that I bothered them while they were on their break?  I know, could I be any worse?

Now I’m going to try and explain it to all of you (my apologies ahead of time). Big D and The Hammer are prepping for dutchman repairs to the exterior posts and studs of the east façade of the house. To carry out these repairs, they have to shore up the façade before they begin removing the rotted sections of wood. They have already completed dutchman repairs to the interior studs, which did not require the shoring the exterior repairs do. They have to anchor temporary posts both inside and outside of the house - the temporary interior posts will sit on the sill and the temporary exterior posts will sit on the ground underneath the front porch, rising up through holes cut in said porch. On top of these two posts will sit the needle beam. The needle beam will rest on the temporary posts, perpendicular to the house. The restoration guys have anchored c channel beams along the exterior façade of the house, just below window level. These c channels will rest on top of the needle beams. Basically, when they begin to cut out the rotted wood of the original exterior posts and studs, (thus removing the original support for the walls of the house), the weight that once rested on those posts and studs will be transferred to the needle beams and theoretically the façade of the house will not collapse while they complete their work. Comforting theory indeed. No wonder the Director was questioning the whole process. Who in their right mind would not doubt whether or not it was advisable to knock out the walls of a 223 year-old house and cut off the bottoms of posts that are supposed to be holding up the house? It makes me nervous thinking about it, but then again, my office is directly underneath the façade of the house where they are working so I may be a little oversensitive. Should anything, theoretically, go south, I will probably go with it.

View of the c channels, located below window level, along the length of the facade.  When the dutchman repairs are done, the weight of the house will shift via the c channels to rest on the needle beams.  

They are called c channels because the shape of the beam resembles a c.

Looking at the physcial evidence of the structural damage of the house sure cured my fears about the holes in the walls.

This evidence is a little bit of overkill on the part of the house - okay we get it Cherry Hill, posts and studs are hanging in mid-air, you don't have to be so dramatic about everything. 

Just like the dreaded fall cleaning the Director was forced to undertake – the restoration project must continue on as well. It is work that needs to be done, and the longer it is put off, the worse things will get. Even if the necessary work is liable to give all of us on the staff moments of doubt and hysteria, we have to think of the bigger picture - our responsibility as caretakers for a cultural institution. There’s no backing out now. (The work of shoring the façade is going well, the same cannot be said for the fall cleaning of the Director’s office - that project is on a temporary hiatus.)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Is the glass half empty or half full?

Riddle me this: If the front porch of the house has to be taken down to allow access to the sill but the front porch can’t be taken down because it is holding up the east wall of the house – what do you do?

Well, if you’re Western Building Restoration, Stephen Tilly, Architect or a structural engineer from Structures North Consulting Engineers, Inc. what you do is, you have a meeting where you figure out what to do. Just such a meeting was held on Monday August 30th at Cherry Hill.

When I asked the Director for a recap of the meeting she actually squirmed a little in her Director’s chair and said something to the effect that the meeting was really supposed to be for Western, the architectural firm and the structural engineer and that she wasn’t privy to the entire conversation. I’m not questioning my Director’s listening abilities. I’m wondering if the coffee machine was malfunctioning that day or something because that might explain the situation better : no caffeine = no interest in living in this cold cruel world. But again, that is mere speculation on my part. Thankfully Laura from Stephen Tilly, Architect was good enough to write up the minutes from the meeting and share them with us, (she was probably fortified with a strong supply of caffeine).

The results of the meeting were both positive and negative. Since I consider myself an optimist I choose to begin with the positive findings from the meeting.

First of all, almost all of the brick nogging was intact between the studs and posts (okay - sure the mortar was In worse shape but everyone knows mortar lacks the backbone that brick nogging possesses). All of this lovely intact brick nogging will be preserved since we’re in the business of preserving.

Exterior view of brick nogging and posts.  Note the spineless mortar -It's just pathetic, I don't know how the nogging lived with it for 200+ years.

Another exterior view of the nogging and posts
Interior view (without the flash) of the brick  nogging, brace and post in the South Parlor 

The same view with the flash.  Now, was that a prototype of an 18th century peephole?  Maybe it is true that people were a lot shorter back then!  (Note, the diagonal wood is a brace.  Bracing prevents the studs and the wall from moving horizontally - which would be a bad thing)
The bases of the exposed posts and studs were in better! shape than was previously anticipated. Thank you very much 18th century wood!

Interior view of exposed post in the North Parlor

Interior view of post in the North Parlor, clearly missing something at the bottom!
The visible areas of existing sill were also in better! than expected condition – and of course the goal will be to preserve as much of the original historic sill as possible. Once the south end of the sill is fully exposed, Stephen Tilly, Architect and Structures North will determine the condition of the sill and see if the entire sill can be preserved instead of carrying out a complete replacement of the sill which is currently the plan.

That was the good news as proclaimed by HCH’s apostles: Western, Stephen Tilly, Architect and Structures North Consulting Engineers.

Now for the less than good news. Some of that quality brick nogging might have to be removed in order for Dutchman repairs to be carried out on the corner posts and exterior studs. (Apparently a Dutchman repair does not refer to a construction worker of Dutch descent who wears wooden clogs while he works…yeah I was way off base with that. From what I understand now, a Dutchman repair basically is when a portion of rotted or degraded wood is cut out and a new piece of treated wood is inlaid in its place…no clogs involved whatsoever). That’s not so bad.

Except that isn’t the only not so bad thing. The bottom of the brace north of the entry door between the exterior studs has deteriorated and as a result a gap exists between the bottom of the brace and the sill. Either the bottom of the post will have to be repaired with an epoxy consolidation or the deteriorated brace will have to be replaced.

Okay, but what else is there really? Oh, right, yes, well when the southeast corner post was being exposed some black ants were seen double-timing it out of the newly exposed premises. The exact species of ant was not identified at the time. As the rest of the post is exposed in preparation for Dutchman repairs (once again, Dutchman repairs does not refer to a Dutch construction worker named Maarten with an affinity for wooden shoes), Western promised to keep us all posted in case evidence of an infestation becomes apparent and Tilly recommended treating the wood with a borate preservative treatment, something with the active ingredient Disodium Octaborate Tetrahyde. (Borate is a form of kryptonite for carpenter ants)

Did I mention that Western thinks they might have to remove the floorboards in the center hallway? The hope is that Western will be able to access the sill from the exterior wall but the fear is that the previously expressed hope will be dashed and they will need to remove the floorboards to access the sill from the interior.

The imperiled Center Hall floorboards (also the future site of HCH's Communications Coordinator Exhibit - Please do not provoke the staffer)
We already knew that a few of the floorboards in the north and south parlors would be removed but that wasn’t as big of a deal because the said floorboards run parallel to the sill and are already damaged as a result of the house’ structural problems. The center hall floorboards however are in perfect condition and they run perpendicular to the sill. Removing floorboards from the hall is much more invasive and will result in a bigger surface area loss. Plus, as Western bleakly pointed out, when the floorboards are eventually replaced, it will be very difficult to get them to fit together as tightly as they do now. Okay, thanks a lot Debbie Downer.

But let’s not dwell on the negative. Let’s instead find out the answer to the riddle at the beginning of this post. Work will be started on the north end of the building – repairing studs and posts. These repairs, having been completed, will provide stability for more than half of the building. That stability is pretty important in setting the stage for the south end work. The south end repairs are in the words of Western – “A tricky little bit of business” (not exactly comforting, but not exactly panic inducing unless you are the Director who has taken to walking around with a paper bag in her hand at all times – just in case).

How do you remove a porch when said porch is holding up the facade of the house? You cut holes into the deck of the porch and insert the shoring (most likely some really long, sturdy pieces of wood), then you brace the shoring against the house, through these holes, and then you (now start holding your breath) remove the porch (keep holding) and be very optimistic. A tricky bit of business indeed – especially when you are removing the porch while keeping your fingers crossed – that’s down right painful if you ask me.

Things really aren’t so bad, even if they aren’t so good. However, if it turns out that the center hall floorboards need to be removed that might be bad news for me. My office currently sits directly underneath the center hall and I’m pretty sure that my ceiling is composed of the hall floorboards and nothing else. If the floorboards are removed then yours truly’s office will be visible from the first floor. Western has kindly promised to install temporary railings along the edge of where the floorboards are removed in the north and south parlors so that when the public comes through on our restoration tours, they will be able to get a close look at the sill. If they remove the hall floorboards they will install the same temporary railing in the hallway - which means that while I am sitting at my desk answering the phone, I’ll be on view for the public above. But since I am committed to looking on the bright side of things – maybe I’ll get lucky and the public will throw peanuts or seeds down at me like I’m some kind of wild animal on display at the zoo, at least then I won’t need to bring in a lunch.


I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Operation Garbage Retrieval which was an aborted mission that the staff of the museum were preparing to carry out to liberate our garbage can and lawn bags from within the confines of the construction fence currently encircling the front porch of the house. If you remember, I called off that mission when it became apparent that the museum had ready access to the area. Well, apparently one of our staff didn’t get the memo (or in this case the blog) because she went rogue. I’m not talking Sarah Palin rogue – I’m talking Rambo rogue. In defiance of a direct order, the PA/FSA took matters into her own hands and rescued the garbage can (there was no hope for the lawn bags).

PA/FSA (with personal photographer) slips through the fencing

It was a poorly thought out course of action, a waste of resources, and totally unnecessary, and yet it felt so distinctly like a patriotic, red-blooded reaction to the tyranny of terrorists that maybe it was Sarah Palin’s type of rogue.

Mission Accomplished