Connected \\ December 5, 2018
Window into Preservation
As the newly-appointed Manager of Historic Structures and Landscapes at PEM, I’m delighted to dive in and begin expanding the stewardship of our historic buildings. Many may not know that PEM owns the largest and finest collection of historic structures of any American art museum. As an architectural conservator, I look forward to developing and implementing a preservation strategy that will ensure the best possible care of our buildings as they continue their journey into the future.
Gardner-Pingree House. © 2016 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola
Unlike repairs to your own house, historic preservation can be amazingly complicated. Take, for example, what seems a straight forward maintenance issue, a shutter repair. Many of our buildings retain their original wooden window and door shutters, most of which are over 200 years old. Unlike commercially-available modern shutters, historic shutters were made completely by hand with traditional tools and were assembled using a variety of sophisticated woodworking joints that eliminated the need for glue and nails. Each shutter on the Gardner-Pingree House is composed of 53 separate pieces of wood and employs 134 separate woodworking joints. There are 58 windows just in the main house of The Andrew-Safford house. Each of these shutters is composed of 114 pieces of wood and employs 168 joints, meaning 116 individual shutters that were all made by hand.
Fragile from age and exposure to the elements, wooden shutters require constant maintenance and repair. Several of these handcrafted shutters have recently been removed from our buildings for this purpose. Very few artisans in our 21st century world retain the knowledge and expertise for how to correctly restore historic louvered shutters. Normally the work is carried out by an architectural conservator or restoration carpenter. Repair and restoration of historic shutters is a slow and painstaking process requiring special tools, procedures and sometimes space-age materials such as sophisticated architectural epoxies to strengthen and sometimes even replace damaged wood. Often dozens of layers of paint need to be removed, the units disassembled, joints repaired with wood grafts or epoxy and reassembled. They sometimes need to be clamped and braced for weeks or months to straighten out warps and other distortions that occurred over time.
Only as a last resort due to extreme deterioration do we replace a shutter and retire the original to our archives. When one of our shutters has deteriorated to the point where it can no longer be repaired and remain in service it must be replaced with a reproduction. Because historic windows rarely conform to the stock dimensions of modern windows, it is generally impossible to find suitable replacements commercially. Further, historic shutters differ from commercially-made modern ones in both subtle and strong design details, use of material and hardware, and are generally much thicker and heavier than shutters from the later 19th and 20th centuries.
Reproducing authentic shutters of historic design requires the skills of an experienced restoration carpenter trained in the use of historic tools, materials and craftsmanship procedures. It also requires procuring often difficult to find and mostly unavailable wood such as heartwood of old-growth eastern white pine. When we embark on reproducing a wooden shutter we study the original and compare its details to all others on the building to determine if it is original or a slightly later replacement. We then generally identify the examples on the building that are original to the time of construction or to the time of interpretation, and base the reproduction on that design.
As you can see, when something as seemingly simple as a shutter becomes damaged or badly deteriorated, a tremendous amount of research, highly technical skills and procedures and special materials are required. This can often be a slow and painstaking process. A building may look temporarily incomplete while some of its elements are missing due to such repairs. However, our mission is to be the best possible stewards of our buildings. This means following nationally-accepted historic preservation practices and ensuring that the highest degree of historic integrity is preserved and passed down for future generations to learn from and enjoy.