Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Meeting of the Minds

I attended my very first Pow Wow on Tuesday morning, February 8th. Maybe it wasn’t a Pow Wow. Maybe my idea of a Pow Wow more closely resembles the scene in Disney’s Peter Pan when Peter, Wendy, John, Michael and the Lost Boys celebrate Tiger Lily’s rescue from Captain Hook with Tiger Lily’s tribe. Maybe given my idea of a Pow Wow, the meeting which took place last Tuesday, that I am comparing to a Pow Wow, is nothing like a Pow Wow at all. Maybe I have used the term Pow Wow more times in this one paragraph than I ever have in my life, to date. Maybe I should just move on.

That's me on the left, the chubby one dressed like a bear.

We had a meeting on Tuesday, February 8th, among the staff, the architects, Western Building Restoration, and a number of New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites (Parks) representatives including the people responsible for processing grant applications and distribution of funds for the museum. Needless to say those of the staff in attendance were on our best behavior. We wanted to make a good impression on the powers that be, because they’re the powers that be keepin’ our restoration project agoin’.

In light of this desire to put our best foot forward (properly booted for winter weather of course), I arrived promptly five minutes after the meeting was supposed to start. The good news was that I wasn’t the only one who was late. Upon my entrance, a round of introductions ensued – I was introduced to 3 Parks employees – they were grants people. I then proceeded to lurk in the background while the Director did that thing she does – captivate an audience with all things Cherry Hill. Shortly afterwards the bell rang and our architectural team arrived. Another round of introductions followed. Everyone settled into folding chairs gathered around a folding table, huddled together for warmth, exchanging pleasantries, when the bell rang a third time and in entered the Historic Sites Restoration Coordinator for Parks. Again, introductions were given, space was “made” at the table, (I was relegated to a chair off to the side) and the architect began to describe the steps that were involved in deciding the course of the current restoration project. Interestingly enough when architects first came to the museum to investigate the buckling plaster walls several years ago, they had no idea that there was a bigger structural issue at play here. The original scope of the project included window restoration, repairs to interior finishes and addressing water entry into the structure but they quickly realized that there were structural issues that needed to be addressed first. Prior repairs to the sill on the north end of the eastern façade – where the original sill was removed and replaced with stacked pressure treated wood – didn’t address rotted posts. This caused the brick nogging between the studs to become load bearing all of which resulted in the settling of the building which presented itself in buckling walls and turned floor boards. As engrossed as we all were, the door bell rang again and in walked (Hey) Jude. By now you know the drill – a round of introductions were followed by more shuffling of chairs to accommodate the latest arrival.

With the arrival of the construction arm of the project, the talk turned to the existing sill in place in the south end of the eastern façade. A brief summary of the condition of said sill is as follows: Yikes. Translation: The 9x12 sill is partially rotted, a section of it is cleaved off and another section looks like it was charred by a fire. (That last point is especially puzzling as the southeast corner of the house where the charred section is located is an odd section for a fire…none of the house’ fireplaces are located near it.)

A view of the charred sill.

Another view of the charred wood.

Yet another view of the charred wood.

There are two two-bys which are laminated to the current sill but the ends of the two-bys have started to roll out. The original fear in regard to the southern section of the sill was that the entire sill would have to be replaced and that would be a fair amount of work. The problem with total replacement is that the interior studs of that section of the house are tenoned (see my previous post) into the sill and if Western were to replace the sill entirely, they would have to cut off all of the tenoned pieces. The architects think instead of replacing the whole thing it would be better to make it structurally sound by leaving the usable remnant of the sill in place and working with the missing or damaged parts. At that point in the meeting I was unclear as to how one “worked” with missing or damaged parts of a sill.

Before my brain became more pained with all of the thinking and writing I was doing, the bell rang again. Honest to goodness it did, if I’m lying may God strike me dead. This time the addition was the Shade Lady. Round of introductions, shuffling of chairs, resumption of conversation.

The window work was talked about. Mainly, it was mentioned that the windows were being worked on at Western’s shop. Two basement windows are rotted beyond repair and it was noted that work change orders were necessary because wholesale window replacement was not part of the original work order. Issues regarding the use of storms was brought up. The Curator briefed all present on the museum’s current plan to eliminate (as much as possible) UV light entering the museum and also reduce the visible light amounts as low as possible that would still allow for visitors to see in the full spectrum. The museum will use untinted, UV screening exterior storms made of safety glass. The Shade Lady weighed in with her thoughts on how best to mount blackout shades to ensure that all visible light is prevented from entering the window.

After all of the basics had been covered the class (no longer the Pow Wow) moved upstairs into the two parlors on the east side of the house. It was kind of funny to see everyone remembering to put on their coats to go upstairs, as opposed to go outside. Kind of funny in a very unfunny way. Upstairs the architect and (Hey) Jude explained the work that had been done and the Parks people were able to see the work with their own eyes for the first time.  Then the gang (no longer the class) prepared to go back downstairs and, horror of horrors, outside to inspect the sill at the southern end of the front of the house. I, wisely, snuck down the stairs ahead of the group to pilfer a delicious looking muffin which had sat on a plate on the folding table, just out of polite reach from me. Standing in the volunteer room I broke off bits of the muffin like a starved rat and crammed them into my mouth. I was startled by the early appearance of one of the Parks people who came downstairs to also have a quick bite. I thought I had successfully hidden the evidence of my meal but realized afterwards that the crumbs clinging to my chin and my hair probably gave me away.

Outside we all journeyed to the front of the building. The gate was open for us, and an employee from Western had already removed the thermal blanket from the south end of the house. However the large amount of snow resting on the ground, oh and the freezing temperatures, held most of the Parks people, and I am sorry to say the Director, away from the house during the initial inspection. It wasn’t until the Parks grant people admitted defeat and ran inside to the “warmth” of the house that the Director came in for a closer look. The architect, (Hey) Jude, and the Parks Historic Sites Restoration Coordinator scrambled up onto the scaffolding while the Curator and I edged in for a closer view of the exposed sill. Amazingly the a section of the sill appeared to have been charred but we (Cherry Hill staff) were unable to come up with a satisfactory reason for its appearance. There were no documented fires, or any other evidence of fire on the posts and walls of the house. The best we could come up with was maybe Philip Van Rensselaer was into eco-construction and had decided to reuse old, burned building material when constructing Cherry Hill.

After the exclamations over the charred wood died down, the three people on the scaffolding drifted further away from our little spot in the snow and thus it was difficult to hear their conversation. We took up a new position on the detached staircase to try and get a better look and listen at what the professionals were talking about. It didn’t work. And when they came closer and (Hey) Jude described what they were discussing in terms of repairing the sill it still didn’t make sense. I even tried to copy the diagram that (Hey) Jude made but it still did not compute. Luckily the Curator and I were able to ambush him by the museum’s potting shed door and with some “gentle” “persuasion” we got (Hey) to draw exactly what they were planning on doing with the sill.

Still didn't help.  What I can tell you is that there are sections of the sill that are either missing or are damaged, charred wood. The plan is to remove the charred parts of the wood, and to use epoxy and 2 pieces of laminated two-bys in some magical way that will render the sill structurally sound and viable again. (Clearly the process itself will have to be the topic of a future blog post!)

After the delightful field trip in the sub-zero weather, we all went back inside.  I was  nursing a frozen right hand (my writing hand – oh the things I do for my reading public), and several people were waiting for their vocal cords to defrost.  The Director led the majority of the Parks people up the stairs for a tour of the house. The architects, Western and the Parks Historic Sites Restoration Coordinator went outside to view the foundation of the southwest corner of the house. By the time the Curator and I donned our jackets and trudged through the meeting-made snow path to listen, the curiosity of the professionals had been satisfied and they were headed back inside.

The Director rejoined the discussion in time to view the storm window sample from Western. I don’t want to suggest that the professionals aren’t qualified but as they examined the storm window sample they seemed to overlook the fact that there wasn’t any glass in the frame. Here I am thinking we want glass in our windows and they’re only interested in how the frame will fit in the crooked window openings. Sometimes the professionals can be so obtuse! (I kid you! Or do I?) Setting aside the absence of glass, the architects and the Parks restoration coordinator were well pleased with the sample. They reiterated the necessity of trimming the frames to fit, but to not fit too tightly. Since Western will be using a window template when doing the work, the others cautioned that in the cases of really crooked window frames, that adjustments would have to be made to align the exterior storm with the opening.
I think the quality of this photo speaks volumes as to my natural ability as a photographer.  Oh and, this is a shot of the exterior storm sample that Western provided. 

I thought this would serve as an excellent example of a "really crooked window frame" but it doesn't translate so well in this photograph.  But trust me - this window is an excellent example of a really crooked window frame and Western will have to make the appropriate adjustments to the exterior storm that is installed there. 

(Hey) Jude promised to get moving on the sill work and also stated that March would be a good time to complete the painting of the shutters and installation of the storms.

Then the Director pulled a fast one on unsuspecting, little ol’ me. She ditched me. She took off to join the Curator and the Parks employees at the storage building leaving me to follow the architects, (Hey) and Restoration Coordinator around the house like a mute puppy.

They were mostly interested in viewing the windows and talking some more about what needed to be done in terms of installation of restored windows. A lively debate on all things window-related followed: weather stripping (to be avoided if at all possible, except for those windows where evidence exists that it was used); dealing with the gap at the meeting rails which poses a big risk of heat loss (exterior storms should help a lot , also making sure the surfaces where the sash is raised is as smooth as possible and the window hardware should help on that end); upper sash of the windows are to remain fixed in place (as they originally were); acknowledgment that given the varying conditions of each individual window – different steps will have to be taken to ensure that all variables are accounted for (as (Hey) Jude said – each window will be a dance). And here I thought a window restoration was easy peasy compared to sill repair.

It was a good meeting overall – Parks people got to put a face to the name Historic Cherry Hill that so often crosses their desk on paperwork, a decision was made on how to handle the sill repair on the south end, the storm sample was approved and different contingencies were discussed in terms of reinstallation of restored windows. And I not only got to eat the muffin I snatched during the meeting, but also the rest of the muffins left over from the meeting. Aaah, life is good.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Cloudy, with a chance of snow....

I can’t think of a better winter season to undergo a massive restoration project – can you? What are the delays in work that massive amounts of snow, sleet, freezing rain and subzero temperatures cause compared to the satisfaction of conquering a challenge (or in the case of this past month, the multiple challenges) Mother Nature has thrown our way? Sure it’s cold at the house and we find ourselves making ridiculous excuses to sit in the bathroom (which just happens to be the warmest room in the house at this point – no kidding it’s sauna-like), but that doesn’t mean we aren’t enjoying ourselves.

But those delays are annoying. The meeting that was supposed to take place last Wednesday amongst the Director, Curator, Western Building Restoration, the architectural team, our Parks (New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites) contact and Shade Lady did not happen. Bad weather to the south forced the cancellation of the meeting and clearly there hasn’t been an opportunity to reschedule given the combined hysteria of local and national weather forecasters when there is any precipitation headed our way. So structural work is pretty much at a standstill.

The last time I checked in with Joe the Hammer, about a week and a half ago, I was surprised to find out how busy he had been. For starters he had removed the front porch stairs from the house in order to access the sill located under the front door.

The Great Divide

A Close-up of the Great Divide
At some point in the museum’s past, sill repair had been made at this section (under the front door) but unfortunately those previous repairs were not well done. There was no overlap between the boards used for the previous sill (meaning that the sections of wood used for the sill had gaps in between), and none of the exterior posts were sitting on the sill, they were hanging in the air.

Warning - This is an photo of the old sill that has already been replaced on the northern side of the east facade.  I'm using it to illustrate what a sill with some overlap looks like - as you can see there are gaps in between the pieces of timber where there is no overlap.  Now imagine an old sill with no overlap at all and that is apparently what the sill looked like under the front door before The Hammer replaced it.
The Hammer replaced the old sill with 3ft and 4ft sections of wood to create the new sill.

Partial view of the new wood used to replace the old sill under the front door.
He also had been busy constructing scaffolding at the southern end of the front of the house, including inserting the needle beams into the house (anchored to lally columns on the ground), all in preparation for sill work on the southern end. The meeting that never happened, once it does happen, will be critical to determining how to move forward with sill work on the south end. The sill looks bad to me, like it would take buckets of epoxy to make it structurally sound again – but then again, mine is the untrained eye. I think a crack in the plaster wall in my bedroom portends a disaster of epic proportions in the making, but my husband tells me to stop wearing his hockey helmet to bed and accept that it is just a side effect of the settling of the house. Clearly I’m not the right person to decide what looks bad or not.

Although no work can go forward on the sill, The Hammer made Dutchman repairs to the exterior posts with an eye towards the impending sill work to come, meaning that although the sill may have to be replaced, his repairs are removable in order to accommodate the future sill work. The Dutchman repairs can be unbolted and removed if necessary. The Dutchman repair has a tenon, or projection at the end of the wood post, for insertion into a mortise joint. A mortise is a cavity cut into wood to receive a tenon. If the sill needs to be replaced, a mortise joint will be cut into the new sill timber for each tenon on the repaired posts to sit in.

Picture shows some of the exterior post repairs that Joe the Hammer has completed.

Joe the Hammer is holding wood pieces that will be used in the Dutchman repair of one of the original posts.  The tenon is the piece that extends at the bottom. 
In addition to the work Joe the Hammer has done on the exterior of the house, he also was able to put the lath back up on the wall in the north parlor. All that remains is for the walls to be plastered and then the interior work in the north parlor will be done. Since he has done all of the sill work that can be done at the present, The Hammer has turned his sights to removing more windows from the house to take to Western’s workshop for restoration work.

The lath is back!!

Beyond that – the restoration work awaits a lull in the storm systems to hold that much anticipated meeting which will decide the fate of the sill on the southern side of the east façade. Until then, the staff plans to stock up on carbs to outlast the bitter cold. Luckily we have a ready supply of carbs at Uncle Dan’s Diner located down the block from the museum. It’s not an easy job, shoveling food into our mouths as if we’re preparing for hibernation, but it is necessary if we want to make it through the cold weather to the spring. Of course, with the types of carbs we’re ingesting, we don’t have any idea what we’re going to look like when springtime rolls around (mmm, rolls…) - but as my favorite hoop-skirted southern belle Scarlett O’Hara said, “I can’t think about this now. I’ll go crazy if I do. I’ll think about it tomorrow.”

As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!  Especially if my carbs are smothered in cheese.