Monday, December 13, 2010

Newest Threat for Period Structures

It is always a bit of a shock to me how insensitive builders and subcontractors can be toward period structures. And it's not the stick build remodeling contractors that are the threat but rather the proliferation of restoration contractors who purport to be the absolute authority on period structures and what is best for their care and well being. I don't necessarily blame the home owners. They are looking for guidance usually. An experienced well informed restoration contractor should be in the position of properly advising the owner what is best. However, I have been consulting on many projects over the last few years that have shaken my belief that most of these restorationists are well versed in the proper stewardship of our architectural heritage.
There are many factors that contribute to this new threat to period structures. Not the least of which is the energy issue. Despite the efforts of excellent preservationists such as John Leeke, we continue to see period houses having their original windows ripped out and replaced with vinyl clad argon filled disasters. Not only has the antiquity of the structure been compromised, it has now had its aesthetic ruined.
I recently revisited a wonderful ca 1750 center chimney two story Connecticut colonial of extraordinary historic significance. I was one of many who helped to dismantle the residence and relocate it to another state. So intact was this house, we even moved the chimney stack intact. The care that was taken resulted in a restoration/relocation of museum quality. I was very pleased as I toured the house that it is still very much the way we left it twenty some years ago. However, when I entered the thrid floor level, I was shocked to see that all of the roof framing and white oak sheathing boards are now coated with foam insulation. Ruined forever. That material can never be removed from those 260 year old materials. A classic case of a miss guided owner being convinced that the energy savings from the foam would easily offset any compromise to the historic integrity of the structure.
I feel so passionate about this insidious destruction of our historic structures, I plan on writing several posts about the dangers.
It is absolutely critical that owners of period structures get the correct advice. It is so readily available but so often overlooked. Historic New England's Historic Homeowner program is an excellent souce for getting proper guidance while supporting a venerable organization. More on that soon.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Bethel, VT Christ Church 1823

One of the many unspoiled intact churches of New England, the Christ Church of Bethel, VT was erected in 1823. Only open on occasion, so I resorted to having to photo the interior through a keyhole in the front door.
Located on Route 14 between Bethel and Randolph. Well worth the visit.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Traditional Building - As Green as it gets

My building career started in 1970 when I went to work for Rip Swan in Londonderry, VT. Rip had just joined forces with Stuart McDonald and the new company was McDonald and Swan. Rip was an old time builder. Very correct and methodical in his ways. I started out doing the architectural drawings for the firms projects. This gave me much time to look through the vast library of books on old houses. Rip also had an extensive collection of period tools, which further picqued my interest. Rip was very insightful and gave me good guidance. Even though we were actively engaged in new construction as well as restoration projects, we always leaned to the traditional methods and materials.

That start in building gave me the insight to investigate why early structures were still so intact and yet new buildings were falling apart. Early builders and designers worked in a very straight forard manner. From the siting of structures to their design and construction, early builders used logical intuitive thinking to create their structures. They were also presented with an abundance of readily available materials. From foundation stones to framing timbers, lumber and slate for roofing. The materials were at hand.

I know I'm a bit jaded living in Vermont, for even today we have everything necessary to build very sound structures of the highest quality. We still have stone for foundation work, we have multiple sawmills sawing native species for our framing and sheathing needs. We have many excellent millshops producing doors, windows and other architectural components. What we really need is the conscienceness of builders and of people having homes built to understand the benefit of utilizing our native materials.

It's not just Vermont that can gain by looking at what is available locally. Most all states have the ability to produce building materials out of sustainable materials. I have always loved the adobe buildings of the southwest. What better example of utilization of readily available sources that work better than those that have replaced it.

I feel the need to further push this agenda for what seems to me to be second nature. When I watch episodes of This Old House, I cringe to this how erroneous their actions are and yet 99% of those watching are being educated in how not to deal with an old house. Much more on this subject will be dealt with through this blog. Please feel free to ad as you wish.

Posted by Wade I. Treadway

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Architectural Evolution

For all of us who either work on period houses or study period dwellings, the various phases that a house goes through is perhaps one of the most interesting. Sure we all would love to get our hands on a period house that is almost entirely intact, and on occasion we do. Then we can delight in exactly how the house was constructed. But the earlier the structure, we are more likely to spend time analyzing the chronological order of changes that have taken place over the years. To find a portion of a raised panel wall that has been cut in half, the paint line of a period entry doorway that has long since disappeared, or the removal of the center chimney stack are always disheartening and a bit discouraging. It can't help but enter you mind, "What could have possessed anyone to do that?" Pure sacrilege at best, but more rationally evolution.
I had an experience last summer that I must share. During the late 1980's, I was contracted by a high profile individual to do a major restoration on a very significant historical residence in Woodstock, VT. The project was very exacting and not a detail was left out. After a two year duration, the individual wanted me and my family to stay on and take care of the property. A move to Woodstock was very timely for me and my young family. The client offered to let me build whatever I wanted, period of course, on a site on his property. I chose a wonderful site and proceeded to build a reproduction cape with period ell. The main house was built with a new timber frame, but all period components were used. Period glass in the window sash, period flooring, period bricks, you get the picture. When it was completed, the best compliment I received, and quite often, was that it looked like it had always been there. It was a design and finish that I always wanted to build for myself.
We lived there for the next ten years and during that time tweaked the landscaping and built many stone walls. It was a very dramatic but restained property. The client for several reasons chose to move on and eventually sold the property. We also moved on regrettably. The house became the caretakers house for the new caretakers. The new owner of the property was a very high worth individual but refused to spend any money on maintenance. Consequently the entire property has gone downhill.
Last summer I was driving up the road the house is on, and glancing over at the house was horrified to see a new front door. It was a metal clad door with a half round light in it. This is in place of the 6 panel door with period hardware set in a entryway with a five light transom with bullseye glass. When I designed the front entry hall, I had just bought a load of beautiful period pine paneling in old red. The entry way was gorgeous. The door, had vertical red paneling on the interior and was fastened to the exterior panel door with period rose head nails. Period strap hinges and a great Suffolk bean latch completed the picture. But now I was starring at a travesty. It completely destroyed the front facade of the house.
That night I called the caretaker and told him I had noticed that they had changed the door. He said the old door was drafty and had to be replaced. Iasked what he had done with the original door. He said that it was in the shed and asked if I wanted it. It didn't take me long to get over there. As I was loading the door with hardware into my truck, I saw that the back keeping room door had shared the same fate. It too was in the shed but added to my truck as well. I headed home with the strangest feeling. I was actively involved the the evolution of my perfect house. The slow decay and destruction of its original design and construction. What will restorationists wonder in 200 years as to the fate of the original entry doors? I did what any other well intentioned restorationist would do. I labeled the doors with their origin, history and packed them away. I plan on being around for a long time and hope that some time in the future I might make those doors available to a more sensitive owner wanting to bring the house back. But if not, those doors will still be labeled and hopefully found when a full restoration takes place 200 years from now. And of course I'll be grinning from where I'm standing at that point.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

HABS - A Very Valuable Resource

One of the most valuable resources a restorationist and an architectural historian has is the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). Started in 1933, HABS was formed to preserve the architectural heritage of America. There had been a tremendous movement which involved the Colonial Revival period during which architects were compiling measured drawings, photographs and written documentation of colonial era buildings in America. Starting in 1914, The White Pine Bureau, not to be confused with a chest of drawers, produced the White Pine Series of Architectural Monographs. These were exceptional recordings of the architectural treasures of early America by way of measured drawings, photographs and written documentations. The series was published from 1914 to 1940. It was intended to be a marketing device to advance the merits of White Pine to the architectural community. In no small measure it also bolstered the Colonial Revival movement.
None of this activity fell on deaf ears. The early preservation movement within the National Park Service including historic parks and National Historic Sites, saw the need to preserve this invaluable documentation of our early architectural heritage. By agreement between the American Association of Architects, the Library of Congress and the National Park Service, HABS was formed. To this day, HABS is actively recording our building traditions.
Accessing the collections through the internet is the quickest and easiest way to find a treasure trove of early building documentation. The collection and the department is so vast, it can be a bit frustrating to get where you want to be. The general web site is I find rather than starting at square one, I will "Google" my specific interests within HABS. For example, doing a search from Google I might search for " HABS Connecticut Saltbox". This will take me directly to the specific area that lists all saltbox houses in HABS in Connecticut. It can save much time and frustration. Once you have gotten to this point, you can pull up drawings, photos and other documentation on individual houses. You can either print drawings from the site or you can order prints and photos. The directions are quite clear.
I strongly suggest that you spend some time searching through HABS. I can pretty well promise that you will be intriqued by what you find.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Historical Insincerity - Ignorance or Arrogance

The study of our architectural heritage and social history is one wrought with conflicting motives and self gains. On one hand we have the premise that all of what we know at any particular time about a certain element of our past whether it is a material object or an ideology is accepted as is, as proof of our forebearers efforts. The other side is to question and to feel compelled to somehow do better, because we know better now. Case in point might be the esoteric questions that are debated among period furniture makers about the merits of certain joinery or adhesives. To create an exact reproduction piece would be to follow the exact methodology as the original. But the argument comes up that given what we have available today is superior and would be used by craftsmen of the period if it were available. As both a practising joiner and an architectural and cultural historian, I must be guided by the first premise. Sure I could improve on many things that are of an older period, but that would not be giving the proper reverence to that particular object or thought.
All of this has been brought to the forefront of my thinking by a rather bizarre hearing I attended last week in Woodstock, Vermont at the Probate Court. An individual, Michael Guite, who is CEO of Vermont Telephone Company, has put under contract the purchase of a 127 acre period farmstead in Hartland, Vermont. He has a contingency in the contract that he be able to move an 1843 cemetery so that he can build his house there. Unfortunately that indifference to what exists is rather prevalent these days in Vermont. During this hearing, Guite's attorney, George Lamb, extolled the fact that his client has a very deep respect for history. He engaged an architectural historian to spend three days walking the property and to help Guite " best recreate the Colonial look of the 1700's." The first act of course is to raze the existing farmhouse. And with the aid of this "historical architect" he wants to build his new house on the knoll where the cemetery has peacefully been for the last 165 years. I know this property well and can attest to the fact that yes the site of the cemetery is very nice and commanding. And it is exactly where the Aldrichs in 1843 thought it best to place it. It is not only a very honorable location to bury ones family members but it allows for a quiet tranquil settings when visiting their resting place. The Aldrichs were of an old school who fully also realized that the exposed site of the cemetery was most unsuitable for a dwelling as it would take the brunt of the winds and snows from the North. They chose instead to build in the lee of the knoll, the logical most practical location. It too has excellent views and a commanding view of the farmland below. But Mr Guite in his infinite wisdom and total arrogance has decided that he knows best what needs to occur to recreate the Colonial look of the 1700's. That is to undo the most historically significant element of the entire property. More often than not, it is ignorance that befalls our heritage and that can in some ways be understood. But when arrogance destroys it, it is a most profound act.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Dendrochronology - Its use in dating structures

Inevitably one of the first questions that owners of period structures want to know is, "How old is it?". And as a professional restorationist/historian, that is one of the first questions you'd like to answer. However, it is rarely that simple. By being well versed in regional styles and patterns of development, the professional can usually come up with a broad timeframe of say 30-50 years that it might have been built in. This can be based on a thorough survey of the structure and its construction techniques and materials. Certainly, short of a conclusive time of construction through documentation this is probably the most accurate method that has been used for many, many years. Many buildings have been so well documented from their earliest days, that coming up with accurate dates is easy. However, for structures older that 1800, it can be very difficult. Research in town records is the logical place to start, but mention of structures in early deeds is quite rare pre 1800.
If structures have been added onto or altered, as most have, there is the further confusion of what came first. Close examination of structures can give clues but is rarely conclusive. It was therefore with great excitement that starting in the 1970's a new scientific method of dating buildings was developed - dendrochronology. Dendrochronology has been used since that time to date period structures throughout England. It is just in the last 10 or so years that it is gaining in popularity here is the US. Dendrochronology is a method by which test bores are taken from structural members of a structure and matched against a data base of known samples taken from existing trees and well documented timber samples. By matching up growth ring patterns, it is possible to pin point to within a single year and even the season of that year that the the timber was cut. As most early structures were constructed using green timbers, we can establish a very highly probable date of construction.
I will not try to go into the full details of the process, but will rather refer you to go to the web site of Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory,, in England and read Basic Dendrochronology. Oxford has been instrumental in getting the use of dendrochronology established over here. Anne Grady from Boston and Bill Flynt of Deerfield, MA have been working to establish data bases of samples for the various regions of New England.
This is highly interesting stuff and to be able to positively assign dates to a structure and its various additions only broadens our understanding of early building.