Archive for category Preservation

This Place Matters – the old Berkshire Athenaeum

Right before construction started.  Photo the author

Right before construction started. Photo the author

Since September 2013, the yard in front of the Superior Court and the old Berkshire Athenaeum on Park Square in Pittsfield had a chain link fence, construction trailers, portable toilets and gravel. Much of that time, a green curtained scaffold blocked the public view of the majestic stone work and prominent stained glass windows behind it.  And yet, in practically no time at all, the scaffolding and fencing have been taken down, and fresh green sod lies in their place.  What we see now seems much the same as it looked before work started.  According to the contractor, Mike Mucci from Allegrone, that’s as it should be.  “People stop by,“ he told me, “and look up at the building and ask us, ‘What did you do?  I don’t see any difference.’  We take that as a compliment.”

In fact, much has changed, and that should also be a compliment.  A closer look will reveal the steel braces gone from the front façade, but still in place on the sides and the rear of the building.  Some onlookers might detect gray mortar between the stone work on the front, as opposed to the red on the other three sides.  Few passers-by would be able to remember the broken stained glass sections or the cracks in the wall.  And only a trained eye with perfect memory from the summer of 2013 would be able to notice the front façade is straight.  Gone is a bulge that protruded away from the building as much as five to six inches in places, that had been building for years and created an emergency safety concern for the staff inside the building and the many people coming into the building to go to the courts or the registry of deeds.  So, almost five years ago, the state, which operates the courthouses and registry of deeds in the building now, took the first steps of what started as a “small repair,” according to architect John Krifka.

Because of the conditions of the building, though, what took place behind the green curtain over the last two years has turned into a monumental effort to secure the front façade and preserve a building almost 140 years old.  This Victorian Gothic structure, unique in the downtown core, housed for 100 years one of the busiest libraries in the state.  Bearing witness to the rapid economic growth of the city, it still stands, despite the flight of industry, and contributes to the city’s plans to attract new business and arts and tourism.  But, it also carries for many residents the fond association of books and knowledge and community, lending a sense of dignity, pride and identity.

The project involved taking down almost every stone on the façade, and relaying each one, secured to the building to ensure they do not move again.  That’s relatively easy and straightforward to say.  But think about that for just ten seconds, and what that might entail.

Pause.

Each of the thousands of stones went back in exactly the same place.

One could liken it to a giant jigsaw puzzle except that the pieces weighed from 50 pounds to ten times that weight, and  they had to run in straight lines, and they may have been chipped or cracked over the years, and they had to be affixed to a new concrete and steel structure behind that stones, and they  needed new mechanical strategies to prevent water from working in behind the stones to cause the damage, and the stained glass windows and the surrounding forms also needed repair and the entire package needed to maintain the historic integrity and appearance of a building that is listed as a contributing feature to the original Park Square historic district.  And, the building remained open to the public.  And the work was completed in two of the harshest winters in recent memory.

Working in the depths of winter.  Photo, the author

Working in the depths of winter. Photo, the author

An even greater appreciation for this effort emerges upon examining the historical record of the building, where this problem of shifting and bulging has plagued it for well over 100 years.  A letter in 1897 from William Plunkett, the President of the Berkshire Athenaeum Board of Trustees, indicates the need to repair the leaks in the roof, just 20 years after the building opened.  “No one can tell,” he wrote, when it may give out and cause serious trouble.”  Water getting behind the stones, then expanding in the frozen winters and contracting and allowing more water to enter, pushed the stones away from the walls.   Steel girders and reinforced foundations were put in place in 1945 to hold up the roof and stabilize the building.  Then steel bands were installed around the building to hold the stones in place in the late 1970s when the building was re-purposed for the courthouse and registry of deeds.

Those steel bands are no longer needed.  When the stones were re-layed, a new concrete wall, with steel reinforcement, was poured behind the stones each time a layer of 2-3 feet stones was put in place.  Repairing stones and reshaping them to fit and align required a slow, precise care more akin to surgery, if the doctors were manipulating 50-300 pound organs or bones.  Finally, flashing at both the roof line and at the base will prevent water from entering behind the stones.  Hard to see, but along the base are small round “weeps” that serve as drains for any water that might be able to enter through the mortar during the storms that the northern façade bears the brunt of through the year.

Ready for another 100 years.  The old Athenaeum in May 2015.  Photo, the author

Ready for another 100 years. The old Athenaeum in May 2015. Photo, the author

Similar precision and care went into repairing the stained glass windows, the first comprehensive repair since the original construction.  All the shifting over 139 years resulted in cracked and broken glass in the 46 panels  on the two large windows on the front façade, with only small, colored pieces of plastic mounted as temporary replacements to keep out the weather and maintain a poor facsimile of the graceful windows.  New concrete molds (or tracery) were produced to hold the repaired windows in place, and each section of this tracery was fastened securely to the surrounding stone work with metal anchors. The project’s architect. Bill Gillen, said that, despite the new sod and the removal of the scaffolding, the project will continue with small follow-up activities over the course of the year, ending, “with a whimper.”   That would be too bad, as those many people who worked on this project over the past two years of active construction have saved a unique treasure for the city, its residents and its many visitors.   The old Athenaeum, renamed the Bowes Building, for the County Commissioner who helped to save it after the library moved out, has been saved again.  Most of us who will pass by it for years to come, will continue to pay the compliment to those many people involved in this effort:  we won’t notice any difference.  The wall is straight and will remain so.

See also:  Behind the Green Curtain.   This post originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle.

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Thousands of Stories

If private property is the foundation of our nation and its economy, there may be no better place to see it at ground level than in a registry of deeds, where records of real estate transactions are kept.  The offices and rooms that house the documents offer a step back in history with their collections of oversized, dusty, heavy books and their card files of grantors and grantees (legalese for sellers and buyers) to ease tracing of ownership.  Here one can find thousands of transactions which, taken together represent the legal underpinnings of our society.  Separately, each deed tells a story and represents one of life’s milestones.  The entries speak of hope and promise, of failure and tragedy of our forebears.

Admittedly, my sample size for registries is small – just two.  But, if either of the Berkshire registries I’ve visited is any indication, there is no need for a time capsule.  Crossing the threshold into these offices will suffice: they are housed in old buildings themselves with high ceilings, wooden floors and “scary” downstairs bathrooms, as one staff person told me.  Hundreds of volumes are stacked either in floor-to-ceiling shelves or under stand-up counters upon which the books can be heaved and opened and studied.  Each of the shelves has a roller at the edge to allow for easy access and maintenance of these volumes.  The older tall shelving includes a bicycle-chain like contraption so they can be raised and lowered.  Out of place are the occasional computer terminal and photo-copy machine that remind visitors that this is, after all, the 21st century.

The books themselves tell a story of innovation and change, but also of permanence.  Now, of course, records are kept digitally as well as in books that are half the size of the pre-1970 variety – easily a foot and a half in length, a foot wide and three inches thick, representing 600-plus pages.  At one time, the deeds were photocopied for these books, and even earlier they were individually typed with carbon paper.  Prior to the 1920s, the deeds were each written out by hand, stirring images of Melville’s Bartleby facing a mountain of documents to carefully and neatly transcribe all day long.  Over the almost two hundred years these oversized volumes have gone through periods of  metal bindings and then transferred to hard leather and cardboard bindings rendering the documents they house safe from mishandling.  Most are covered in a heavy, course fabric which shows the wear of use  – the stains and spills and the rips.

The legal language remains surprisingly consistent over the past 100 plus years – warrants and grants, easements and quitclaims, and privileges and appurtenances.  Likewise, a description of a property transferred that was surveyed in the 1800s carries over into this century, explaining that the property begins at a certain pipe adjacent or “thence easterly on the South line of land of said Bracewell heirs, 66 feet to a stake and stones.”  Sometime the measurements are precise; other times they reflect bygone ways of measuring using rods and links, and still other times they are perilously vague and general.

Still, earlier social norms are hard to hide.  There is a whole slew of deeds from the 1800s all the way up to the 1950s that announce in bold calligraphy at the top of the page: “Know all Men by these Presents” which by the sensibilities of 2014 sounds jarring in itself, but even more so when both the buyer and the seller are women.  That is more common than one might imagine, given the prohibitions against voting and other social participation. For married couples back into the 1800s, it seems that wives insisted that the property be in both names.  When only one name was given it was not unusual that it was the wife’s.  If this was to protect against creditors going after debtors’ property, women stepped forward again to insist that any stupid financial decisions taken by the men in the family would not cause irredeemable harm.

It’s hard, though, not to see each transfer of ownership as a landmark event in each of these individuals’ lives.  There are real estate tycoons who owned large tracts of multiple properties and sold off individual parcels; there is a surprising amount of stability in some neighborhoods, where families owned the house for decades, and then passed it on to their children.  In others, there are sales every few years.  The fluctuations in the economy are reflected in the housing prices so that it was not uncommon to see home prices higher in the early 1900s than in the 1930s.  The saddest are the references to foreclosures or seizures by banks and courts and even sheriffs, more often than expected.  This seems to take place just a few years after the purchase, leaving the impression that their ability to make house payments was limited even as they were buying the home.

Most people in these books are local, but I have seen sellers from Washington DC and Washington state, from Illinois and Idaho and Ohio and even one from London. There are a few investors, including one J. Walter Thompson from New York City, the advertising pioneer who came from Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  The names also reflect the waves of immigrants that came to this part of Massachusetts, from Quebec and Ireland, Italy and Poland, and now Latin America.  The Minnies and Leocadies and Annabelles have been replaced by Laurens and Jessicas and Christophers.

Each entry has a story, enough for a novel perhaps.  Take but one entry, that of one deed from the Veterans Administration, to a man, presumably young, at the end of World War II.  The VA had acquired the home following a foreclosure and turned it over, most likely to a veteran, recently married since the deed includes her maiden name.  Both were from North Adams, so they could have met in high school on the eve of the war and kept up a correspondence through the war years.  He had to have been young when they bought the house, since he passed away in 1987, forty years in the same house with his sweetheart.  She hired a lawyer to place her house in a trust, to protect her largest asset, (again speculating) in the event her medical bills exceeded her ability to pay.  This is the lived experience of veterans being rewarded for their service in a previous generation or the state of medical care in this century whose rising costs threaten a lifetime’s savings.  Add to this story their children, the jobs, the neighbors and the vicissitudes of life in western Massachusetts with factory closings and 4th of July parades and winter storms.  Where is Norman Rockwell?

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Inside the Registry in Adams, MA. Photo: J. Dickson

And that’s just one couple, one of what must be hundreds of thousands of names tucked away in these books.  Step back in time and find a story.

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Behind the Green Curtain

On the scaffold, behind the curtain, preparing to remove the stained glass panels.  Photo, the author.

On the scaffold, behind the curtain, preparing to remove the stained glass panels. Photo, the author.

There are stories behind the green curtain that people walk and drive by each day.  It’s not just the five stories of scaffolding that the curtain shields for the ongoing preservation work of the old Berkshire Athenaeum on Park Square in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  It also shields stories related to the complexity of preserving this building, stories about its benefactor and architect, and stories narrating the evolution of the city.

Above the front entrance to this Victorian Gothic monument is an inscription that reads “This tribute to science, art and literature is the gift of Thomas Allen to his native town.”  Thomas Allen, a railway baron before there were such men, moved out of Pittsfield and did go west, to Missouri, where he set himself up in the railroad business, and then ran for state office to help get the legislation needed for land acquisitions.  He predated Andrew Carnegie by decades in donating the money for a new library for the town in 1874.

Allen selected the design of William Appleton Potter, a young architect from New York who specialized in Victorian Gothic buildings: grand, ornamental Gilded Age structures, permanent grey and brown stone monuments, with pointed arches, skylights, gables and stained glass windows. Potter had designed the library at Princeton University, and the two men shared a Union College connection.  Perhaps, though, it was through Potter’s brother-in-law who was the sculptor of the Civil War soldiers’ memorial on Park Square that Thomas Allen became acquainted with Potter’s work.  Allen had been a donor for that statue as well.

At the dedication to the library, Thomas Allen revealed his hopes for the new building: help save the nation.  He could have been thinking of the Civil War, as the soldiers’ memorial erected just a few years earlier was in plain sight across the park.  He also had in mind the new immigrants in the town’s mills and factories and their children who would learn the ways of their adopted homeland through the library.  As impressive and unique as it was, the building suffered from both structural and space inadequacies almost from its beginnings.  Twenty years after its opening, the library’s leaders were complaining about water leaking and insufficient space for books.  A new addition and a new museum left more room for books, but many in the library and the city spent the next half century clamoring for a new library.

The building survived, serving a population growing with the success of its chief employer, General Electric, and outlasting calls for its demolition.  With urban renewal of the 1960s claiming whole blocks of buildings just one block away, the Athenaeum escaped unscathed.  By the time the funding became available for a new library, the country and the town had turned the corner in its appreciation for historic buildings.  A new library was built a block away, but this building was re-adapted for a courthouse and registry of deeds.

As one of 8 historic structures, the Park Square historic district received approval for placement on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1975.  As such, it has helped sustain a downtown that has suffered loss of business and consumers since then.  Pittsfield’s efforts to revitalize its downtown over the last two decades have relied on the presence of its historic buildings that offer an attractive and authentic vitality to the city.

Its structural problems remain, however.  One engineer assessed the situation in the 1970s simply: William Potter was trying to do too much, too many roofs, too many places for water to seep behind the stones and through the skylight. As the water would freeze and thaw, it would open up more space for water to seep, increasing the bulging.  Major structural repairs, including steel ties across the front and side elevations, were required for its stabilization in the 1970s.  Again in 2001, the rotting skylight was restored, the roof was replaced and new internal drains on the roofs were installed.

Still, by 2011, the bulging on the front had increased dramatically, as much as five to six inches in places.   In September 2013, the state embarked on a major stabilization effort, with plans to remove most of the masonry and stained glass on the front façade.  A complicated system of anchors will hold the re-laid stones in place to a reinforced back-up wall.  A simple enough sentence, but documenting and removing each stone, storing them off-site, installing new steel supports, repairing the brick back-up wall, re-laying the stones and inserting anchors and grout to hold them in place, is anything but simple.  The movement in the wall took its toll on the stain-glass windows, so a similar process of documentation, removals and repairs is underway as well.  All work is specialized to ensure the historical integrity of the building, matching colors and textures as closely as possible to the original design.

This effort will save the stories of the old Athenaeum for future generations, so they will be see in the building, stories of their immigrant, working class ancestors who made this one of the busiest libraries in the state, stories of a golden age of prosperity when wealthy elites felt a civic debt to their communities and stories of a misguided urban renewal scheme that demolished entire blocks of the city, but somehow managed to overlook this building, with the help of another generation of civic-minded individuals.

All that behind this green curtain.

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The Poetry in Emily’s and Austin’s Homes

Time for another field trip.  This time to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst Massachusetts.  It turns out the Herman Melville is not the only American author who achieved public and literary acclaim only long after his death.  So did Emily Dickinson with her poetry, but with a twist: she never sought that acclaim in her lifetime.

The only known photo of Emily Dickinson, the original owned now by Amherst College

The only known photo of Emily Dickinson, the original owned now by Amherst College

Emily’s house, now a museum, is actually two houses.  One, next door, belonged to her brother Austin; both help to tell the story of her writing.  What draws people to the home is this story of a private woman, creating, in bursts of prolific energy, a poetry ahead of its time and for the ages, but not publishing any of it.  It is through Austin that the world eventually gets to see and appreciate the poetry.  It is hard to know if mid-18th century American readers were ready for her poetry, which expanded the boundaries of the form.

Still, the renovations and additions, the wallpaper and paintings, the path and hedge of both houses are historic traces, primary sources themselves, revealing the complicated relationships between Austin, his wife, his daughter, his paramour and his sister.  Through the objects, the museum guide is able to craft the story of how Emily’s writing became known to the outside world.  It is a story which speaks to us today, of women’s roles in society, of the unknown loss of similar treasure due to an inability to contribute fully.   There is a strong possibility that her poetry may never have emerged.

The two side-by-side historic houses tell a different story as well, a story of authenticity in their contrasting models of preservation.  They tell a story of authenticity, juxtaposing ways to create an honest portrayal of how we now can appreciate the lives of the siblings, how we now understand the story of her writing.  Emily’s house, The Homestead, is restored, with fresh, clean paint and new wallpaper, sanded floors, with new work underway to “take away the 20th century in Emily’s bedroom,” as Jane Wald, the director of the museum, characterized the project.  Austin’s house, The Evergreens, on the other hand, stands as it was found and transferred to the museum, with nothing changed or restored.  The walls are moldy and crumbling, the wallpaper is peeling, the rugs threadbare and the furniture unfinished.  Dark and smelly.  It is a ruin, akin to one of those old stone walls scattered in the New England woods.

The contrast has much to do with what transpired between the Dickinson occupation/ownership of the houses and their acquisition by Amherst College, and then the museum.  Simply, Austin’s home was kept intact, first by his by his daughter Martha and then by her heir, the young man who helped Martha edit Emily’s poetry for publication.  Next door, no Dickinson lived in Emily’s home after her unmarried sister Lavinia’s death in 1899, 14 years after Emily died.  First tenants, then new owners moved in to The Homestead, and they renovated and changed features of the structure.  Once the house was bought by Amherst College, then work began to restore to as faithful a version as possible the house Emily lived in.

Which is authentic?  Both, but it depends.  It depends on how we approach them.  Authenticity implies honesty.  Austin’s home in its ruinous state, does not honestly reflect how he and his family lived.  The threadbare carpets gave it away; they alone do not allow anyone to say “this is how the house looked when Austin lived here.”  It may have been Austin’s carpet, but it is not how it looked in his tenure.  Emily’s home, preserved, does try to reflect the “present-ness” of how Emily lived.  But, it is only a reflection, and as a re-creation, is a present version, unable to say without caveats, “this is precisely how the house looked when Emily lived here.”  Her plush carpet may look like the one she had, but it is not the same carpet.

From a preservation perspective, it is useful to have the two different approaches side-by-side.  From the insights which the two houses tell us about gender and art, the juxtaposition also offers meaning, by showing both the actual, deteriorating objects in Austin’s home, but re-imagining them to a prior era in Emily’s home.  Side-by-side, these traces complement each other, the real and the imagined, to tell the story of women’s lives and routines and the central role of their homes.

 

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This Old Barn, Really Old

I don’t know which was more impressive, the two timber-frame barns being preserved and re-assembled or the massive airplane hangar of a workshop enclosing them.  Of course, the two barns take precedence, since one of them may be the nation’s oldest barn, dating as far back as the 1690s.  Still, I couldn’t stop looking at the features of the workshop: the two sides of window/doors which could slide open to remove structures as big as a barn or the rack of mechanical pulleys and cranes on guides running the length of the workshop.

That structure was owned by a contractor who specializes in restoration, a middle-aged man wearing a polo shirt and khakis named David Lanoue.  He recently opened up his workshop in Great Barrington Massachusetts to the public, who came to see the work in progress on the old barns and hear from those involved in the work.

At that moment, the contracting crew of 15 interspersed in the crowd, but recognizable in their matching polo shirts, had assembled the roof of the newer barn.  By newer I mean late 1700s.  The end side of the older barn stood next to the roof.  Laid out horizontally on workhorses were other large, tapered beams belonging to the older barn, so people could see the extent of the restoration process.

An architect who specializes in timber frames spoke to the philosophy guiding the restoration.  Looking like a farmer, wearing a Quaker-like hat, Jack Sobon emerged from the audience with little of the pretensions that he could claim from his having authored several books on timber frame construction and spent most of his life immersed in the subject.  His manner was professorial, but he was teaching not only to the many carpenters and contractors in the workshop, but to those of us less familiar.

Sobon, a consultant to Lanoue’s project, indicated that cost and time dictate the philosophy.  Pointing to the various pieces of lumber stacked in rows around the room, he indicated that, under normal circumstances, restorers would have discarded much of the old wood.  Instead, since Lanoue knew he was working on what could be the oldest barn in the country, he has adopted an approach to save as much of the old wood as possible, regardless of cost.  So, rotted wood has been caringly replaced with white oak pieces, carefully cut to match the sections taken from the old beams.

Can you see two barns?  Photo: JDickson

Can you see two barns?
Photo: JDickson

There was another philosophy that Sobon kept referring to, as he discussed the detective work undertaken on the original builders.  Time and again, decisions made by New England builders in the 17th and 18th century were based on what was easy and what cost the least.  Some old barns were built with no foundation, with corner beams dug right into the ground.  Why?  It was quicker and easier than digging and laying a stone foundation.  He explained the assembling of the sides and the corner joints, creatively designed so the original measuring and laying out of the pieces could be done, lying flat on the ground.

What became clear as both Lanoue and Sobon talked was their fluency in a different language.  Terms like bends, bays, sills and joists fell easily from their lips but landed hard on the novice’s ears.  Not only was the vocabulary new, but so was the ability to see words in all three of their dimensions, particularly evident when Sobon was talking about the corner joints, even with the model he brought to explain it.   Here I learned I had wasted my life doing history and international relations.

What will Lanoue do with these barns?  He spoke of interest from private collectors, but I sure hope the Smithsonian is interested.  They have the room in either the Building Museum or the American History Museum in Washington to house such a treasure.  What a treat it was, in this quiet corner of western Massachusetts to see work of such importance to the whole nation.

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