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.)

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