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

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