Oct 15 2009

Historic Preservation

by Dan Clar | Montpelier Bridge, October 2009

We received the 2009 Montpelier Heritage Award for our work on this landmark Victorian home, previously used as a college dorm and offices.

I’m one of those people who rarely goes anywhere without observing the architectural environment around me. I tend to notice when a roof line of a building seems too shallow, or if the window openings are disproportionate to the building, or if a molding is used in a place that it shouldn’t be. Although examples abound, we are fortunate in Montpelier to be surrounded by many buildings that were built beautifully. In many cases they’ve been maintained and/or restored in a way that honors the details that make the building what it is.

As owners and stewards of these old buildings, we are faced with ongoing maintenance and expenses that demand our money. We can choose to preserve the historic integrity of a building, or we can abandon it. Quite honestly, there are times and places for each of these options. This article will focus on the former – the instances when we choose preservation.

There are a number of strategies that contribute to the successful renovation of an old building. Due to space constraints here, I will focus on two criteria of a successful project: relative proportions of the different architectural elements, and the building materials that are used.

My team (Clar Construction, Inc.) has had the opportunity to work on many projects that have exhibited the aforementioned. Numerous people have approached me (complete strangers even e-mailed me!) about an addition we built in 2008. They all said the same thing – how impressed they were by how well the new construction blended with the original construction. This was due in large part to a skilled architect, but it made me wonder why so many people took an interest. I believe the answer has something to do with the pleasant lines of the roof massed appropriately with the building below it, well proportioned window and door openings, and authentic building materials. There are “tricks of the trade” that architects, designers and builders rely on. Short of making a career of learning such things, a great reference is Marianne Cusato’s book, Get your House Right ( Sterling Publishing Company, 2007).

By using rot-resistant materials and improved priming and draining, Dillingham Hall now has three new porches that look like they have been there since 1890. The difference? They will last longer.

We also had the opportunity to work on the house at 7 West St. that is being awarded this year’s Montpelier Heritage Award. The owners demonstrated a remarkable drive to restore their property (known as Dillingham Hall) into an impressive house. After many years in use as a dormitory for the College, and then offices, the owners returned the house into the single family residence it was intended to be. We were involved in interior renovations and an exterior preservation job, both of which responsibly maintained the house and effectively made it more appealing to 21st century comfort standards.

In the 2005 interior renovation, we opened up the floor plan to convert the house from a number of isolated small rooms to a more open space by removing interior walls. We fabricated and installed moldings that replicated the existing moldings, and we used quarter sawn white oak and yellow birch to match existing details. By using appropriate materials, the result of this project is such that the new floor plan is indistinguishable in aesthetic from the original. I have worked on countless houses that had been renovated over the years with little to no regard for the materials used, and it is a pleasure to work on a project that focuses on architectural details that truly work with the space.

In 2007 we rebuilt all three exterior porches. The original porches were beginning to fail— steel footings had rotted, wood framing was compromised, and 115 years of paint made it impossible for new paint to adhere well. We temporarily supported the roofs and proceeded to re-build the structures. We clad them with Douglas Fir tongue and groove flooring and trim that was coated on all six sides to discourage moisture from getting into the wood. Wherever possible, we install wood with a drainage plane behind it, promoting air flow behind the wood details to allow what moisture does accumulate the opportunity to dry.

New interior moldings matched the existing ones, and we used quarter-sawn white oak and yellow birch to match existing details. Using the right materials made the new floor plan indistinguishable from the original.

The original decorative flat sawn lattice was deteriorated after a century of existing next to the moist ground, and we proceeded to pattern and reproduce about 300 of these lattice pieces in our shop. We also fabricated and installed reproduction custom moldings out of cedar for the majority of the trim on these porches. We then sent the turned columns and turned balusters off to get chemically stripped of their numerous layers of paint.

By using materials similar to the original structure (we used wood species that were more rot-resistant than the original pine) in conjunction with current practices of back priming and providing a drainage plane, Dillingham Hall has three new porches that will last longer than the original porches did, and they look like they have been there since 1890.

Cusato summarizes well in her book: “Design matters. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but authentic details and materials, appropriate to place and based on fundamental principles of structure and proportion, resonate with every eye.” Montpelier is privileged to have such a high proportion of beautiful old buildings. It helps to make this city such a great place to live and work. The way we build and care for these structures is a vital contribution to keeping Montpelier a desirable place.