Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Based on Real Events...

A day in the life of a chipmunk….

It’s been several weeks since I took up residence in this here historical house. Ma always said I wouldn’t amount to nuttin’ (mmm, I just got a little hungry) in this world but considerin’ I found myself a big ol’ house to hole up in for the winter I would say I’ve done pretty well for myself. I would love the opportunity to lord it over Ma but she had an unfortunate run in with a neighborhood cat which did not end well. (God rest the mean old fur ball’s bones.)

I saw my opportunity to get into this house one day when I was out scrounging around for nuts for the cold season. There I was scurrying across the ground when I see a sight I don’t get to see every day – a door standing wide open into a house. Sure there’s a guy who kept coming and going through the door but it only took a little patience and timing and I was in that door easy.

Course I didn’t plan on encountering nobody while I did a little reconnaissance work. Slipping around corners here, diving for cover under a table there. Things were looking good, the place had more than enough hiding places for me to stay out of the way of the humans but then my luck ran out. Temporarily that is. You see I thought the coast was clear for me to make my way into a nice dark room when this human comes walking around the corner and cuts me off. Did she ever scream. And scream. And scream. The good thing was no one else came running to see what the problem was, I only had her to deal with, which was hard enough. She was screamin’ and jumping all over the place – if I tried to go one way, she screamed and stomped her foot, if I tried to go the other way, she screamed and shut a door. It was ridiculous – I was like – ‘Lady all I want to do is get outta your way so make it a little easier on a rodent!’ But there was no reasoning with her. Finally she went running for help or somethin’ and I hightailed it outta there.

I’ve only had a couple more run-ins with humans here but luckily I have escaped any harm. They’re a shrieky bunch – it’s hard on a chipmunk’s ears you know. But I have my ways of getting revenge - like leaving a walnut on the floor of one of their offices just to see their reaction.

Found on the floor of the Education Director's office.
It’s my way of letting them know – look I’m here, I’m not going anywhere, I have now found a way to get in and out of the museum without using a door and your have-a-heart trap is a joke. Seriously – that thing is like a 7-11. I crawl in, eat the peanut butter they use to bait the trap and walk right back out. They should get their money back on that thing.

Yup – I like the way things are looking for me this winter. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll find that special someone who completes me and we can start our own dynasty here at this house on the hill. The possibilities are endless – unless they get a better trap. I am a sucker for peanut butter on just about anything.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

This next post goes out to....

…Emad Andarawis. It was Emad’s insightful and hard-hitting suggestion “I need you to do a post about plaster” that was really the catalyst for this piece. Although I fear this post may not have the level of detail that Emad is looking for (after all – this is the man who has read the entire internet and finds it lacking in answering his questions about plaster) I hope it may prove somewhat helpful. Emad if it does prove helpful, I will take all the credit and if it doesn’t, I blame #3 and #4.

Unbelievable – you don’t check in with the restoration workers for a measly two weeks and they plaster all the walls in the house on you! Maybe not all the walls, just the lower portion of the walls in the North and South Parlors and the Center Hall that were in need of plastering. On the one hand I want to be positive about their work ethic and dedication but on the other hand I wish they had taken a page out of my book and worked SUPER slow so that I would have had the time to snap some pictures of the process. Or make a plastering video – how exciting would that have been?  Don’t all respond at once or anything.

This is obviously not as exciting as watching it live on a video but it's the best I could do. 

Admittedly, I have been preoccupied with back-to-school stuff the past couple of weeks. I’m thinking about starting a campaign to save trees from schools. I have three kids in school this year and they easily get about 9 handouts to take home with them. Every single day. That’s 27 handouts that come into my house on any given day. That’s 135 handouts every week. That’s 540 handouts every month. That’s…that’s a lot of paper. Those poor trees. And what do I do with all of these many, many handouts? If I’m not using them to write down phone messages in illegible handwriting or to mop up yet another spilled cup of milk (whoever said “There’s no use crying over spilt milk” clearly didn’t have four children who spill milk twice a day on average. They’d be crying too if they were on their hands and knees soaking up milk from the stained and dirty fibrous mat formerly known as a carpet), I’m giving them to the garbage men so they have something to throw in to the recycling truck once a week. What I’m not doing is saving them, and I’m usually not even reading them. Wasteful.

But I can’t say there was anything wasteful about the way plaster was made prior to the 20th century. (How’s that for a transition? I’m telling you I could be a TV news anchor - ‘…the blast wiped out the entire town leaving no survivors. [pause, turn the frown upside down and go…]  If you’re looking for a blast of fun this weekend, check out the doggy fashion show being held at the Downtown Community Center where you’re sure to see some real barkers strutting their stuff.’)

I found #3 and #4 in the house last Tuesday and by the very nature of the work they were doing, they were unable to escape me. #3 was perched atop a ladder in the South Parlor and #4 was squatting down in the Center Hall with a trowel full of plaster in his hand which he was systematically smoothing over the lath. These boys weren’t going anywhere and they knew it, and they knew that I knew it. I took my time, snapping pictures and then I settled in on the floor with pen and paper in hand and began the interrogation.

#3 begged off talking to me – insisting that #4 was the plaster expert. Maybe he was, or maybe #3 was still recovering from last week when I cornered him for a restoration update.  (I wouldn’t have twisted his arm behind his back so hard if he hadn’t tried to run).  #4 is no spring chicken so he wasn’t going to get the leg up on me and run out of the place. Having my subjects secured, I had to get them to talk. But how? I couldn’t open with an obvious question like, “What are you doing?” That would make me sound ignorant and I can’t afford to lose my restoration street cred. Instead I tried a much more subtle tack: “Can you explain what you are doing?”

“Plastering.” #4 responded.

Darn, I was back to square one. Time to pull out all of the stops – “Can you explain what you do when you plaster?” The Spanish Inquisition I am not, but effective I am, cause #4 sang like a little birdie.

The first thing he stated was that the lath only existed as a platform against which the plaster is applied. It has no function beyond that – it’s like an artist’s blank canvas, and the plaster is the masterpiece smeared on for display. The plaster alone, once applied and dried, has the strength to hold up the walls.

#4 is quite the artist.  The art world is all afire!

Typically three coats of plaster are applied to lath to make a wall. The first coat is called the scratch coat. The scratch coat is flexible, it can move with changes in temperature. Plaster is a lime product, which makes it very hard, solid, durable, but it can break easily which is why the scratch coat is applied - to provide the flexibility that the top coats of plaster do not and cannot have. After the scratch coat come two veneer coats. The veneer coats are smoother, the lines left behind by the trowel used to apply the plaster are no longer visible. When the last veneer coat is applied, there may be a need for minimal sanding to smooth out the surface, and perhaps some filling but basically the top veneer coat, once in place, means the plaster wall is ready for the next phase of its makeover – painting or wall-papering.

In Cherry Hill’s case – some extra coats of plaster were needed in order to build the wall out to where it was supposed to be. So Cherry Hill had two scratch coats and two veneer coats of plaster applied to the walls. It takes about 24 hours to let a layer of plaster set. As I write the walls have all been plastered and are prepared for the decorative phase of the restoration work. But why did I mention the non-wasteful nature of plaster prior to the 20th century? I thought I told you that was a transition point. And not such a strong one the more I consider it.

North Parlor - totally plastered
South Parlor - totally plastered
Center Hall - totally...um...you probably get the point

Plaster, as I said earlier, is a lime product and when it dries it is super duper hard. Not only is it functional for use as a wall because of its strength and durability, but it is also an effective means of preventing rats and mice from having the run of the walls in a house. Rodents don’t particularly enjoy eating through plaster precisely because it is hard. They’ll do it in an emergency situation but plaster walls are an effective means of pest prevention. But what was mixed in with plaster to make the scratch coat? (Note – here is where the transition point is explained.) Fibrous materials. Once upon a time, animal hair was an essential ingredient in plaster. Hair from cows, horses or pigs, obtained from slaughterhouses or what have you, were mixed into the plaster to help boost the flexibility of the plaster as the wall moved. That’s what I meant by early plaster production not being wasteful. Get it? Okay, it’s official, my transition was terrible. Nowadays, wood fiber is mixed in with the plaster instead of animal hair, for the scratch coat. More wood – poor trees.

The veneer coat has sand in it. Sand, somehow, lends strength to the veneer coats of plaster which is essential for the top coats of a plaster wall. Sand is always used in the veneer coats of plaster – the Greeks and Romans did it, as do #3 and #4. #4 explained they have to add the sand to the plaster mixture for the veneer coat. Particularly with restoration work, one must be sure to match the size of the grain of sand used in the plaster of the original walls with the grains of sand used in the restored portion of the walls. By taking a piece of original plaster and mashing it up, #3 and #4 can look at the size of the sand and then be sure to add sand of a similar size to the plaster they are mixing for the restoration work.

Who knew getting plastered could be so much fun? Besides college kids, and people at football tailgate parties, the bride’s embarrassing Uncle Steve, grumpy old Mr. Smith at the end of the street, attendees at museum conferences, people who ride mechanical bulls, anyone who has ever sung karaoke….I guess a lot of people knew.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Excavate and sniff!

I’m baaaccckkkk. It’s been well over a month and I wish I had a good excuse for my silence. Believe me, I really wish I had a good excuse for my silence, if only so the Director would stop looking at me with such disappointment and disillusionment in her eyes. I can say with all honesty that there was a space of a couple weeks at the end of August when work came to a screeching halt on the restoration project. #3 was gone. Just gone. We had already said goodbye to #4 in a heart wrenching farewell, heart wrenching for us of course, not so much for #4. We thought they both had gone on to greener pastures, or, perhaps more appropriately, older structures. So imagine my surprise when one fine day #3 and #4 came a’knockin’ on our door. (I didn’t hear them a’knockin’ cause that door is thick. Thankfully they remembered to ring the bell.) And, even better, imagine the surprise of my colleagues when #3 and #4 came a’knockin’. Actually, instead, imagine the horror of my colleagues, horror being the more appropriate adjective to describe their reactions. They had all been lulled into thinking they no longer had to show up at the house to let the workers in at 7am every morning. Restoration work started back up on September 1st. Staff coffee consumption increased starting around September 2nd as did staff grumpiness.

‘What?’ You ask. (Actually, it sounded more like a shriek to me.) ‘Work started up again on September 1st, and you are only posting an entry in the blog today, Saturday, September 24th? Why the delay?’ You ask/shriek again.

First of all, I say to you (holding my head to stop the ringing of my ears caused by your screeches) shrieking questions at me is not necessarily the best way to communicate. It hurts my ears and makes me defensive. (Note my defensive tone.) I’m sorry for the long silence. I’m not proud of it. I would like to say that I suffered a crippling illness or devastating injury to make you feel better, but that would be a lie and though I am many things (some of them quite unsavory), what I am not, is a liar! You deserve the truth. You can handle the truth, and the truth is…over the past month I have been part of a secret government committee working on identifying alternative sources for energy– I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up, but I will say this…we’re very close to a solution. Now that I’ve made my truthful confession maybe you realize that you were wrong to jump to conclusions (especially given the sensitive nature of what I have been working on) and maybe you could stop shrieking at me.

Needless to say I was thrilled when I was able to pull #3 aside on his first day and coax (read: bully) him into giving me the skinny on what he was doing. #3 is a patient man and, what’s more, he is a patient man with me. The first thing on his restoration work agenda was to finish the restoration work on the remaining windows in the garret – in particular the window sills. Cherry Hill is always full of surprises, and it’s not a place where anything can be done simply and easily – why would it be any different for the restoration? Apparently the damage of one of the windows that #3 was working on was not caused by age or exposure to the elements but instead was caused by an earlier epoxy restoration. Yes, it seems even restoration work needs restoration work at Cherry Hill. #3 was amazed at this “first” in his career. He has never run into a situation like this in all of the buildings he has restored, so he found it quite interesting, and, believe it or not, so did I. But then again, I think it’s pretty clear by now that I’ve developed into a bit of a restoration groupie. The story begins 20 to 30 years ago, when epoxy application in restoration work was in its infancy. As #3 pointed out to me – there is no huge body of literature available today that addresses all of the ways and when, where, why, and how epoxy can be applied. The restoration field of experts is not an overly large one, and information is probably shared mostly by word of mouth. So imagine when epoxy was first being used in the field – when there was no history of best practices for epoxy use - there was bound to be some misapplications or mistakes. Cherry Hill is so fortunate to have an example of this beginner mistake.  (Note my sarcastic tone.)  What #3 found with the old epoxy repair was that the epoxy had been applied as a top coat, as opposed to being used to bond wood together. What happened was that while the top coat was able to keep water out for a while, in the long run it failed. This coat of epoxy trapped moisture inside of the wood.

This is a piece of the window sill that was removed.  The white part is what was once the painted surface of the sill.  Where the chisel is pointing shows the location of the original epoxy application which was just coated over the wood to act as a sealant of sorts. 
The garret window sills were made from yellow pine wood, not oak, which, it turns out, was a very fortunate thing for the windows. Had the sills been made of oak, the oak would have very quickly rotted once it got wet. In addition to the rot, we probably would have got some funky fungus to grow inside of it as well. Yellow pine is a wood of a different sort, namely – it is much more rot resistant then oak. So why wasn’t yellow pine used in all of the windows of the house? While yellow pine may be rot resistant it does not have the same weight bearing qualities that oak does. Oak is a much stronger wood and when it is sealed properly, it will last forever. This explains why yellow pine was used in the windows in the garret, as opposed to the oak used in the windows on the bottom three floors, which have the weight of the house and roof to contend with.

The rotted wood is the dark part of the fragment being held and the still healthy pine is the bottom part.

To restore the window, #3 had to excavate the sill (dig out the rotted wood), and he epoxied “new” yellow pine to the surviving original yellow pine to make the repairs. By “new” yellow pine, I mean 150-year old yellow pine with the right moisture content, originally grown in the northeast, and which Western had a surplus of from another restoration project. So the “new” old yellow pine was epoxied properly to the “old” old yellow pine to restore the window sill which I am happy to report is sloughing off water quite nicely.

Isn't it a beaut?  Look at that new sill and note all of the water sloughing action.  I have no words...I am speechless.
But the truly amazing thing about yellow pine (which is my new favorite wood…hello, haven't we establishe dthis already? Groupie here!) is that, since it is rot resistant, the surviving yellow pine from the original sill is in really good condition. No, you don’t get it. A shaving of the surviving yellow pine which was removed during the restoration still smells like pine. I tell you no lie (for real this time). #3 gave me a sample (to keep!) and I walked around the museum forcing all of my colleagues to “sniff the wood.” At first they thought that was slang for some new street drug, but once it became clear that I literally wanted them to smell a piece of wood, they sniffed and were…whelmed by the significance. (I use whelmed here because they were neither overwhelmed or underwhelmed, they were just… whelmed.) Apparently I’m the only crazy wood sniffer on staff and I now have the wood shaving sitting on my desk. No one will step into my office for fear I will insist they sniff it. But I don’t care how….eccentric…I may seem – I’m sniffing pine (fresh pine) from wood that was cut down over 224 years ago – if you don’t find that impressive, then you are obviously not a restoration groupie like me and, chances are, you’re not too into this blog either!

Pine-sol has nothing on this wood chip.
Any of you who play the Curatorial Curiosity game on HCH's facebook page will recognize this picture.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Who you gonna call?

#4 left us. He left us! He is gone. On Thursday, July 21st, (which also happened to be the 150th anniversary of the first battle of the Civil War at Bull Run), #4 packed up his car, said his fare-thee-wells and rode off into the sunset. Coincidence that his last day happened to be on the 150th anniversary of a civil war battle? Let’s hope so for all of our sakes.
Actually it would be more accurate to say he rode off into the late morning sunshine. But even more accurate would be to say he rode off into the late morning sunshine obscured by the heat haze hanging over Albany on what must have been a day to make even the Devil shift his pitchfork in discomfort between his cloven hooves. What I’m saying is that it was hot that week, so even if #4 was sorry to leave us, I don’t know how sorry he was about not having to climb up and down stairs to work in the attic in this heat.

Since his departure, work at the site has come to a standstill. It feels a bit like a ghost town in recent weeks without the hustle and bustle of restoration activity. Certainly if you look at the house from the outside, with its missing siding and metal fence, the place looks like it has been abandoned and is now the playground of the spirit world. Which gave me an idea. Ghost tours and paranormal investigations at historic sites seem to be all the rage these days. Maybe Historic Cherry Hill should use this national craze as an opportunity to make something positive out of the current external appearance of the house. But how does a historic site go about offering this sort of “special tour” to the general public. Sure, Historic Cherry Hill conducted its own “ghost investigation” last fall but it wasn’t open to the public. (Click on the following link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_U5utT9dhwI or click below to watch the "investigation.")

While I scratched my head in thought, an opportunity arose that really was quite fortuitous. A historic site in central New York was offering a Haunted History Investigation to the public at a “reasonable” $25 dollars a ticket. The Director, the Curator and I decided that we should attend to see how this sort of thing worked. For the purpose of research. Perfectly objective research.

I learned a couple of things from the research trip (please note, the following lines are delivered in a heavily sarcastic tone):

• There are four types of ghosts: residual, intelligent, poltergeist and non-human entities.

• Apparently measuring electromagnetic fields is really big in the ghost hunting world. You wouldn’t believe the number of gadgets that exist to measure electromagnetic readings. I’m serious. You would not believe it.

• Clearly there is a growing need for colleges and universities to offer a Bachelor Degree of Science in Ghost Hunting. One of the ghost hunters who addressed the full capacity group was forced to waste years of his life on a college campus, accumulating various Bachelor of Arts Degrees in really random subjects, (I think one of them may have been Basket Weaving but I’m not sure), just to get the appropriate training for this line of work. Don’t even get me started on the poor girl who had to get a degree in Animal Behavioral Science before she could finally be qualified for ghost hunting.

• The federal government needs to invest more money in support of the study of science at the high school and college levels. A lot more money. A lot.

• Museum professionals do not always act professionally when on a ghost hunt.

The conclusion? This isn’t Historic Cherry Hill’s thing, no matter whatthe house’s exterior currently looks like as a result of the restoration work. Besides, its outward appearance is only temporary – and who knows how long these ghost investigations at historic sites are gonna be around. For at least as long as the general public finds them fascinating…and we all know how long the general public’s attention span lasts. Coke II anyone?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Vacations are overrated....

Everyone keeps asking me how my vacation was last week and although I know they mean well, frankly I just want to say: “I went on a beach vacation with four kids under the age of 8--how do you think it was?” That sounds a little nasty I admit, but you must cut me some slack. A beach vacation with four kids, ages 7, 5, 3 and 2 is not, well, it’s not a day at the beach. They can’t swim; they can’t apply their own sunscreen (30 minutes! 30 minutes is the length of time it takes to get all four children properly lathered with sunscreen); they can’t seem to keep the sand off of their wet hands or their wet, sandy hands out of their mouths (trust me, you don’t know embarrassment until you are standing on the beach telling your kid to stick their tongue out so you can wipe their mouth down with the one non-sandy square inch of beach towel left while they gag uncontrollably); they want ice cream from the ice cream truck but they don’t know how to eat it before it melts all over the place- you try explaining to the nice elderly couple strolling by with horrified looks on their faces that “No, my son did not rip open the flesh of some helpless seagull with his teeth but instead ‘ate’ a Spiderman ice cream stick that has permanently stained his face, his hands, his stomach, his legs and his feet blood red.”

Caution:  May cause others to think your child is stained with the blood of some evil deed.
You can imagine then how happy I was to return to the comparative calm of Historic Cherry Hill. I can sit at my desk and concentrate on what I’m doing, as opposed to conducting a head count of the Doehla children every two minutes, always coming up one short and then discovering that the one short kid is three blankets over trying to pilfer beach toys from an unsuspecting family of four. A well-behaved, family of four where there is a brother and a sister who dig sand castles together instead of trying to bury each other head first in the sand. Gosh – vacations are stressful – it’s so much nicer to be back at work.

At coffee time on Tuesday I sat down, relaxing in the comforting routine of the museum,. I pulled out a paper and pen to ask the Director what, if anything, was new with the restoration. The Director, startled, jumped and looked up from her coffee before saying, “I thought it was a little bit louder in here than last week.” I hoped she was referring to the oscillating fan blowing hot air around a hot room and not to the fact that I was gone all last week.

Between the Director’s sips of coffee, I gathered I didn’t miss much. A lift was supposed to arrive at the museum last week to allow #3 and #4 to work on the upper windows of the house – to fit storms, to paint [note of not particular importance—painters will do the painting, not them], (and if the Director asks really nicely), to clean out the gutters. The lift never materialized for which I am profoundly grateful, because I am hoping to talk the guys into letting me go for a little ride on the lift when it does come and I might have missed my opportunity if it came last week. Also we were awaiting the visit of the City Building Inspector to look at the sill work and pronounce it sound. Until the Inspector makes his determination, #3 and #4 cannot finish putting up the siding on the house.

When I arrived at work today, I found two things – 1) #4 waiting to get into the building to work in the attic and 2) my preference for the relative luxury of my air conditioned mini-van to the hot air in the museum. Focusing on my first finding, I asked #4 what he would be doing in the attic today. He explained that he is preparing the window openings in the attic for the reinstallation of the restored windows. He had a question regarding the window specifications. According to the specs, the architects are calling for four window sills to be replaced in the attic. #4 invited the Director and the Curator up to the attic to take a look at the four sills in question as he wondered if total replacement of each sill was necessary. I invited myself along because that’s what I do. And when I reached the top of the attic stairs, I kind of started wishing I had stayed downstairs in the comfort of the basement air because it was hot as Hades up in the attic and it wasn’t even 10:00 in the morning yet. The Director and #4 examined each window sill, testing it for soundness. One of the window sills clearly needs to be replaced, it is located on the south end of the house. The other windows seemed to be in better shape. I snapped pictures as we moved from window to window. The end result of this informal little inspection was that the Director emailed one of the architects to ask for more information on the decision to replace the window sills.

The sill that is in definite need of replacement.
Another window sill slated for replacement.
And yet another.

I have no further plans to walk up the three flights of stairs to the attic for the rest of the week ‘cause it’s going to be a hot one. I would rather sit in my little office, pretending the wind from my desk fan is really an ocean breeze and my cushioned office chair is really a blanket spread on the sand. Now that’s what I call a good beach vacation.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

An update from the Jersey Shore...

It turns out that even when I am on vacation I just can’t get the restoration project out of my head. So I’ve decided to post an entry from the Jersey Shore. But if I’m writing from the Jersey Shore I’ve got to do it right. You know what that means..well, actually you only know what that means if you have ever had the “privilege” of watching an episode of MTV’s Jersey Shore…but you’ll catch on quick. To look the part of a Jersey Shore-ite I’ve spent a lot of time under the gentle waves of a tanning bed so that my skin now looks and feels as smooth as a dried up piece of leather. The amount of hair products I have in my hair has allowed said hair to defy gravity in what I consider to be a very flattering hair style. And since the Jersey Shore is all about partying, I needed to make sure I was the ultimate party animal, dancing it up every night. The problem with that one is my husband wasn’t too keen on the idea of me staying out every night until 4am and then sleeping in until 1pm so we compromised and I have partied until 9pm dancing to my youngest child’s garbled rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” (minus the majority of the correct words of the song).

Being properly suited up to play the part of a person from the Jersey Shore, I can now continue. After my post from last week was written, #3 arrived back on the scene at the museum. In my excitement I rushed to give him a warm welcome but got hung up on the wire fencing surrounding the house and settled for a “How are you?” instead. I think it was probably the better way to go. #3 explained that he was on site to begin putting the siding back in place on the front of the house which we certainly find exciting as it will greatly improve the house’s outward appearance. One little problem quickly became apparent with the siding reinstallation – and that is that the mason’s enthusiasm for his craft resulted in him bricking over the location of where the mailbox is supposed to be in the wall. That makes it awfully tough for #3 to put the mailbox in. The brick will have to be removed so that the mailbox can go back in place.

Behind that patch of insulation is the location of the mailbox which was mistakenly bricked over.

#4 also made a reappearance, literally outside my office door. He came in last Friday to reinstall a restored window. I know, I know, I’ve written before that the basement windows have not been restored yet because they are in bad shape and need more work. It turns out that I was 75% correct – somehow #3 or #4 snuck in and removed the window directly outside of my office to bring back to the shop for restoration. It was the only window of the four basement windows on the front of the house that was in good condition. The other three windows are on hold because two of them need new frames and one needs a new sill. #4 showed me the lower sash of the restored window he was reinstalling, mainly because I was sitting, staring at him and it would have been rude not to. #4 said that the window was hand made and showed me the grooves for sash weights on the sides. The interesting thing here is that this window, in its current location in the basement, does not have the need for sash weights, leading #4 to conclude that the window itself was reused from some other location . I found that fascinating and called up the Curator on the phone hoping she could tell me all about the history of the window and where it was used before. She couldn’t. When the Historic Structure Report was done between 1979 and 1981, the windows were described and included in the floor plans but they were only evaluated based on what was visible without invasive approaches (i.e. no one yanked them out).  We have no documentary evidence in the collection that can shed light on this question. We have the contract between Philip Van Rensselaer who built Cherry Hill and his builder, Isaac Packard. While the contract calls for reusing doors from the previous structure on the property, it does not call for reusing windows from any previous structure. This means one of two things either a) some later family member recycled the window from some unknown location or b) maybe Philip Van Rensselaer and/or the builder changed their minds but never noted it on the documents.

The newly restored and reinstalled window in question. 

The view from that window to my office.  #4 couldn't avoid me even if he wanted to (which he probably did).

That’s all I have for now – what do you want from me? I’m on vacation. I gotta go, I think my youngest child is getting ready to start tonight’s entertainment, I’m hoping I can persuade her to do her cover of “You Are My Sunshine.” That’s going to get the crowd going…the crowd being my three other children and my two nephews.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Communications Coordinator, Reporting for Duty Sir!

Summer is here! Back in January when I was having two frostbitten toes on my right foot amputated as a result of the cold working conditions at the museum, I dreamed of the hazy, lazy days of summer. Now those days are here and frankly, it’s just too nice out to work. Apparently #3 and #4 feel the same way because we haven’t seen hide nor hair of them for a couple of weeks now. With no restoration workers to approach and annoy, I’ve had to turn my attention back on the Director (you can imagine how thrilled that makes her). Right off the bat the Director let me know that #3 and #4 were not off enjoying the sun somewhere but were actually working on the windows at Western Restoration’s shop.

Half of the exterior storm frames are sitting here on the premises. I know this not just because the Director said it was so, but also because I walk by them everyday where they are stored in the south kitchen right outside my office. What I didn’t notice was that the stack of exterior storm window frames have been shrinking in number. As much as I would like to believe that #3 and #4 are highly trained ninjas who have mastered the skill of sneaking into a building and removing large rectangular objects shaped like windows with no detection, the truth is I’m not the most observant lookout in the crow’s nest. If I were on duty the night the Titanic hit the iceberg I probably wouldn’t have realized anything was amiss until I felt the icy Atlantic lapping at my toes. Those exterior storm window frames have been systematically removed and carried off to the shop where they are being finished and prepared for installation. The majority of the exterior frames still in the kitchen are painted already, and #3 and #4 have already fitted all of the exterior storm window frames to the openings of the windows. That’s not all, the shutters are also finished and apparently waiting at the shop for a visit from the Director.

In regard to interior windows: Overall, 30 of the 46 windows in the house have been removed, restored and reinstalled. The attic windows, removed over the past month or so, are in the process of being restored at the shop. The basement windows are a little bit more needy. Turns out given their condition, they will have to be rebuilt. Hey Jude would like to use a different wood than was originally called for in the specifications to rebuild the windows with which will involve a change of work order.

Since #3 and #4 aren’t actually off catching the sun’s rays anywhere and since it seems like someone ought to – I have made the ultimate sacrifice and offered to volunteer myself for this duty. So the week of July 9th I report for duty at Long Beach Island, NJ where I promise to do my best to soak up as much of the sun as I possibly can while taking breaks to eat fresh sea food and sleep. It’s a tough job. I hope I can handle it. I’ve given myself plenty of time to try. Wish me luck.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Moving Day

On Monday, May 23rd, it was moving day at Historic Cherry Hill.  Instead of writing about it, I thought you might like to experience it first hand with my video post.  Click on the link below (and if that doesn't work manually type the link in).  Happy Viewing, and make sure your volume is turned up!


Monday, May 23, 2011

Who built the ark....Noah, Noah...Who built the ark....Brother Noah built the ark

I don’t know about all of you but the staff here on The Hill have commenced with plans to build an ark to save us from the deluge of rain that has, well, rained down upon us like some biblical curse the past couple of days. Luckily the restoration workers have so many tools they can’t keep track of them so we’ve been secretly pilfering them and other building materials while we work on the ark. Of course stealing supplies from the restoration workers and building an ark has prevented me from writing a truly informative blog this week. No sill talk, no window talk. (Did I just hear somebody cheer?)

What I do have for you are two interesting finds that the staff has made as a result of the restoration work. The first find is not new to all of you. If you recall in an earlier post of mine, “An architect, an insulation guy and an insulation guy’s cousin walk into a museum…,” I mentioned that roman numeral numbers were visible on the wood beams at the attic ceiling level, however, when I tried to locate them I came up empty handed. Well I’ve got good news. Since #3 and #4 had to remove some of the planks of wood on the floor in the South Parlor to access the sill from the inside, they exposed the floor joists which run perpendicular to the sill. Lo and behold, there are roman numerals clearly visible, carved into the wood at the end of each joist.  Hopefully you won't get motion sickness when you watch this!

And now the second find – which in my opinion is awesome! As I hope I’ve made pretty obvious in this blog, window restoration is being carried out on every window in the house. A couple of weeks ago the staff made an exciting find in the bathroom. (Let me take a moment to be clear, we weren’t all in the bathroom together at the time of this discovery because that would be weird.) The window coverings have been removed from the window in the bathroom, fully exposing it from top to bottom with nothing to block the view outside (which, as you can imagine, is awkward as it is the only functioning bathroom for the staff to use and it is located on the first floor of the house). It drew our attention solely because the bathroom was so much brighter without the coverings in place. That would have been the end of the story if not for the curiosity of one Education Director. The window is original to the 1787 construction of the house, a 12 over 12 paned beauty tucked away behind our supply cabinet in the bathroom.

Just behind the cabinet with cleaning goods on top....

...lurks one of only two of the original windows of the house.  
The Education Director decided to take a closer look at the window itself and the yard beyond one day and we’re lucky that she did. Because she found a name scratched in the glass – “Eliza Van Renʃselaer.” Below the name is the failed attempt of said Van Rensselaer to write her name.  When you watch the video be warned - it is difficult to see the signature clearly and it was impossible for me to get a good still photo of it.

This finding blew us all away as not a single staffer had been aware of the existence of the name on the window (this includes two staffers who have 30 years and almost 20 years under their respective belts as HCH staff). We think it belonged to Elizabeth Van Rensselaer, born in 1770, daughter of Philip and Maria Van Rensselaer. She was married in 1793 to Peter Elmendorf with whom she had two daughters, Sarah and Maria before her untimely death in 1798, only weeks before her father Philip died. A narrow stairway it is unknown if this stairway was original to the house) leading to the second floor once passed through this space only to be transformed into a “water closet,” or bathroom in the second half of the 19th century.

Hidden behind the pipes is a thin door which used to lead to the back staircase that once upon a time stood in what is now the bathroom.
In an 1852 inventory of the house the room was listed as a pantry. Its exact use in the 18th century is unknown as is whether the back staircase was present at the time of the house’ construction or was added in the early 19th century. But if we imagine for a moment that the staircase did exist, or that it was a simple pantry out of the way from the eyes of all but family and servants - you can just imagine a 17-year old Elizabeth Van Rensselaer scratching her name into the glass, leaving her permanent mark behind perhaps in a fit of teenage rebellion.

Now – it could be that Elizabeth didn’t scratch her name into the glass at all. Maybe an older or younger sibling was ticked off with her and decided the best way to get her in trouble would be to mark up Dad’s brand new window in his brand new house with their sister’s full name so she would get the blame. That’s probably what my kids would do.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Let There Be Light!

I was distracted at work last Wednesday – distracted I tell you! It wasn’t because the Curator was drooling coffee out of the side of her mouth during morning coffee time (she blames the coffee drool on the lasting effects of Novocain from an early morning dental procedure but I have my doubts). And it wasn’t because of the numerous nameless, faceless painters constantly ringing the bell and marching (two by two, hurrah! hurrah!) through the house on their way to paint the windows and exterior storms. I was distracted by a strange light I noticed flooding into the South Kitchen just outside my office door. The strange, unexplainable light was everywhere. Was it some ghostly manifestation of Philip Van Rensselaer? Was I about to be touched by an angel? Was an alien trying to make contact with me? Or was it something much more fantastical and unbelievable. I got up to investigate and could not believe my eyes. The strange light was not celestial, supernatural or extraterrestrial in nature – it was plain old sunlight flooding into the room.  For many, many moons now this particular window in the South Kitchen has been blocked by sheets of cardboard and a window shade for added measure. No light dared to push its way through. Walking through the South Kitchen is impossible unless every over head light is switched on or one runs the risk of disappearing under heaps of packing material never to be heard from again. But there that window stood, bare as the day it was born, nothing to stop the bright spring sun from shining on in.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the...outside world.

I was drawn to it like an insect to a death by electrical zapping. I stood in the warm rays of the sun, soaking up my quota of Vitamin D for the year. I felt an absurd desire to stretch my back and curl up with my tail wrapped around me in the rectangle of sun cast on the wood floor, but I couldn’t do that, A) because we were open for public tours that day and people might stare and B) I’m not a cat. For the rest of the day, every time I stepped out of my office, I took a moment to enjoy the light and warmth. But as I was leaving at the end of the work day (with big plans to get a tan in the South Kitchen the next day), I found that the window was boarded over. Goodbye sunshine, hello rickets.

Hey!  Where'd my sunshine go?!

Why did this happen? I wanted answers. Luckily I was able to “take” #3 aside (I tied a loop in a nylon rope, whirled it over my head a couple of times and let it fly – lassoing #3 around his neck when he was getting out of his car and dragging him in through the door I had the foresight to remember to leave open), and ask for an explanation. Once I removed the rope from around his neck, #3 proved to be very cooperative in answering my questions.

Answering those questions involved an inspection of #3’s sill work outside…on the scaffolding, which is about 8 feet off the ground. Not high enough to kill or seriously maim one who falls off the scaffolding – but high enough to really hurt and humiliate a person. I played it cool, stepped from the relative security of the floating front staircase over a gap that could rival the Grand Canyon in width and onto the relative instability of the metal scaffolding. In stark contrast to my awkward movements, #3 scurried across the scaffolding, as lithe and mobile as a monkey in a tree. He was practically hanging upside down from his tail and working on the sill in the time it took me to put one foot on the scaffolding. Once I reached #3, (patiently eating a banana while he waited for me) I crouched down, trying to get my center of gravity as close to the ground as possible.

Sure, it doesn't look that high but wait till you're the one standing on top of it.
This is where I almost lost my life stepping from the floating staircase on the right to the scaffolding on the left.  I'm not exaggerating!
The sight that met my eyes made me want to lay flat down and cry. That dirty rotten sill! Literally! #3 launched into a discussion of the sill which eventually lead to a (sort of) explanation of the South Kitchen window light. #3 has been very busy. In addition to fitting exterior storms to the windows in preparation for the safety glass to be installed back at the shop, he has been working steadily on the sill. The first thing I saw was the middle section of the sill on the southern half of the house. I could see the epoxy that #3 used to fill in the parts of the sill where he had cleared away the rotted wood.

You can see the layer of epoxy on the sill.

This is the epoxy that #3 uses in the sill repair.

 He explained that after the initial layer of epoxy, he would sand down the surface and then go over the whole section again with a clear coat of epoxy, after which he will take long timbers to sandwich against the sill. Following this, more epoxy will be added and final white oak facings will be placed against the sill to ensure that the sill’s width is built back out to where it originally was once upon a time before dry rot set in. Also long bolts will be screwed into the wood layers for extra reinforcement. The long pieces of timber used for this part of the work are the infamous white oak featured in a post last fall. This white oak, as all of you avid readers may recall, has to have a low moisture content. The white oak to be used at HCH has a moisture content below 15%. #3 explained that one cannot epoxy wood with a moisture content above 18%.

The wood pieces shown here above the stone foundation (and in between the clampy thing) are the subsequent layers of wood added to epoxy layers over the repaired sill. 
This large piece of timber shown here will be another layer in the epoxy sandwich that will build out the sill to where it is supposed to be.

This is one of the bolts that will be used to stabilize the sill.

The section of sill located closest to the southeast corner of the house was mostly gone. #3 was clearing out the area located directly above the stone foundation as a mason was due to arrive the next day to create a level foundation surface upon which the sill could be built back up.

Just beyond #3's leg you can see the southeast corner where most of the original sill is gone.
A close up of the southeast corner.  #3 was to clean out the debris to prepare for the arrival of a mason who would level off the top of the stone foundation.

This left us with the section of sill located in between the two aforementioned sections. This section of sill was much worse than previously believed. On the surface, the sill appears to be in good shape. It seems viable and solid. It was only when #3 took some core samples of said viable, solid sill that the truth became known. When #3 drilled into the sill, he discovered that certain sections were completely rotten deep inside. The rot is much further in the wood than was expected. #3 will have to chisel out the rot in the wood, then dutchman repair it with epoxy, and add newer pieces of wood in the manner described above
Drill baby, drill!  #3 drills for core samples.
This is a piece of the sill that #3 picked up for a little demonstration.  Now you see it (kind of, I know, I know, it's blurry)...
...Now you don't!  Ta-daaaa!  No, #3 does not have Superhero powers. He just has the ability to crumble rotted wood with his fingers.   (Or does he have superhero powers?  He's like any old "Clark Kent Restoration Worker" with his hard hat and glasses on, but when he removes them he seems like a completely different person, doesn't that make him a superhero by default?) 

While this sill work is being carried out – the weight of the nogging and posts rest upon a stabilized wind brace which is attached to the c-beam anchored parallel along the front façade of the house. A tension rod is affixed to the wind brace and is holding up the weight of a ton of bricks while sill work is carried out.
This is the wind brace that is helping to keep the nogging, etc. from falling on #3's head.

All of these repairs to the sill are done with the expected outcome of stabilizing the sill and making it viable to bear the weight of the post and beam structure once more. Up to this point, as you may recall, the interior posts have been carrying the weight as the sill has withered away from rot. Viewing the sill from inside the South Parlor is particularly fascinating as #3 and #4 have removed the floor boards that abut the front wall of the house. You can see almost an inch of separation between the floor joists (which run perpendicular to the sill) and the sill. Because of the sills deterioration, it started to turn out and pull away from the joists. #3 explained that the effort to bring the sill flush against the floor joists again would involve a LOT of work, invasive work, and instead the gap will be left as is.

The gap between the joist and the sill is almost an inch in length!

But what does this all have to do with the window and the sunlight? In order for #3 to access the middle section of sill I just described, he had to remove the top frame of this particular basement window. With that wood removed, I got a very good look at the condition of the window. There was a whole lot of rotting going on. The same for the bottom frame under the window. That brief afternoon of sunshine was only while the window was removed and the space was boarded up to protect the interior of the house. It doesn’t seem fair that my moment in the sun was all too brief. But I guess if I was really feeling sun deprived I could always walk outside to get my solar fix or convince the Director to purchase me a sun lamp for my office.

You were my sunshine, my only sunshine, you made me happy, for about a day....

Monday, May 2, 2011

Stop Pulleying My Leg....

The past couple of weeks I have been a lady of leisure, traveling around this great country to see how the little people live. That might be stretching the truth just a bit. I haven’t traveled all around the country just to Western New York and then to the Gulf Coast of Florida. However if you count all the states I flew over between Newark Airport and Tampa Airport then you can see why I made the claim that I did. It’s not important where I traveled or why I traveled. What’s important is what was constantly on my mind while I traveled. Some of you may have just hazarded a guess - ‘Freedom from the four kids.’ You will be surprised to find out that, no, that wasn’t the thought constantly on my mind. No more guesses? Boy, you’re really going to kick yourself when I tell you the answer...window pulleys.

The secret is out. While I have not posted anything in the past few weeks, I have been thinking constantly about window pulleys which are the topic of this week’s post. As you are all aware, the restoration workers, #3 and #4, have been steadily working on reinstalling restored windows in the house and thus far, almost all of the windows in the house are back where they are supposed to be. As of last week, they were preparing the exterior storms for installation. Lots of wonderful window work going on. So what’s the big deal with window pulleys? Nothing much I have to admit, except that the window restoration work has allowed all and sundry to take a look at the existing pulleys before they are covered back up with the windows, not to be seen again until the next time the museum undertakes a restoration project. Which will hopefully be a lifetime or two from now. This post is just to take a moment and smell the roses, or, more appropriately, view the pulleys, before I dive into exterior storm installation and sill work for my blog post next week.

#3 and #4 have come across three different types of window pulleys in use in the windows at Cherry Hill. The first type is a wood pulley. The pulley mechanism which the cord for the sash weight winds around is made of wood. The wooden pulleys are the oldest found in any of the windows at the museum and are most likely the original pulleys.

Okay - so this is not a picture of a wooden pulley.  It is a picture of a string attached to a wooden pulley that is no longer visible now that the restored window has been reinstalled.

Another type of pulley found in the HCH windows is iron. This is probably stating the obvious but the pulley mechanism is made of…wait for it….iron.

An example of iron pulleys.

The third type of pulley is the strap pulley. #3, in trying to help my simple mind understand, compared this pulley to a measuring tape. The strap is pulled out from the pulley mechanism like measuring tape is pulled out. And while it might not snap back into place as fast as a measuring tape can, the strap does retract back into the pulley.
The small hinge for the strap is just visible in this picture.
A more easily recognizable stra.p pulley
This is a window in the dining room.  The original pulleys were removed and replaced with "newer" salvaged pulleys.

This is one of the pulleys removed from the dining room window.  You can just make out that the label notes this pulley is "For Upper Sash."
The other pulley removed from the dining room window with its strap pulled out.  Note the resemblance to a tape measure.  What you can't see are the grease marks these pulleys leave in the acid free tissue wrap.  There is a distinct odor of some sort of mechanical grease.
One of the dining room window pulleys.  As you can see - it's patent date of October 30, 1888 gives us a rough estimate of when this pulley was probably installed by the family. 

#3 and #4 will be using whichever pulley system is already in place when they reinstall the restored windows.

And when you’re talking about window pulleys, you can’t forget about the sash weights. (Actually I did, until just now.) Basic window mechanics work on a weight and pulley system – you just never get to see the objects themselves. #3 showed me one of the older sash weights used in the windows. When I asked him, (with stars in my eyes, impressed with his seemingly magical knowledge), how he knew its relative age, he explained that he could guess the age of the lead sash weight given its crudely shaped, rough edged appearance. No machinery used to produce that weight my friends!

Lead sash weight

Obviously the different pulley systems represent different points in the house’s history when window work was undertaken by the family. It’s neat to see, for instance, the window in the Director’s office which has the iron pulley system as well as the strap pulley system in place.

It's a little difficult to make out but in addition to the strap pulley, there is also an iron pulley towards the top of the picture.

When I was looking at that particular window it reminded me of my husband's home improvement projects at my own house. He occasionally comes across something that makes him pause, scratch his head and ask, “Why did they do that?” For a moment looking at the window in the Director’s office, I wished that I could part the veil of time that separates the present from the past and ask those ghosts of Cherry Hill past the really important questions like, “Why didn’t you remove the old pulley system before putting in a new one?” And of course, “Where did you bury the money, the Director really wants to know.”