Dismantling the O’Kane Farmhouse

O'Kane Farmhouse, Full Frontal

O'Kane Farmhouse, South Face, photo by John Butler

Preservation Timber Framing has been involved in a number of museum projects in the past.  We reconstructed the Brown-Pearl and Manning Rooms for the Boston MFA, rebuilt the Moffatt-Ladd coachhouse in Portsmouth, and dismantled 16th c.  Carved Ceiling Beams for the Fogg Museum at Harvard, to name a few.  We are honored to have been a part of these prestigious projects, but where does this leave the many historic houses that remain on the chopping block?  There are a number of legitimate reasons that a historic building cannot be, and should not be, preserved on its original site and usually this results in the building being demolished.  Is it possible to take the standards used in a museum setting and apply them towards preservation in the private sector?

O'Kane East Face, photo by John Butler

O'Kane East Face, photo by John Butler

The O’Kane farmhouse, c. 1790, typifies this dilemma.  It is currently located across from the Child Study and Development Center on the UNH campus in Durham, NH.  Thanks to the university’s stewardship, the farmhouse retains many original or early features, including indian shutters in many of the rooms, and very nearly its original room layout and partitions.  Much of the panelling is likely original, and the trim elements appear to have been hung during a Federal-era renovation.  But the Child Development Center needs to expand, and the Farmhouse is wildly inappropriate for that use.  Firstly, the original trim retains its original lead paint, and many decades of lead chips saturate the surrounding soil.  Secondly, even if the lead were abated, the building would need to be renovated for the Center’s needs, and in the process we would lose much of the building’s architectural history.

O'Kane Cape Fireplace

O'Kane Cape Fireplace, by John Butler

When UNH decided to sell the building to a responsible buyer who could dismantle the building, and re-erect it faithfully elsewhere, it presented an incredible opportunity, and a unique challenge.  In a museum, we are usually working on one or two rooms, long ago removed from their frames.  The O’Kane farmhouse is a two-story house, with attached cape ell.  In addition to its hewn, white oak frame, it has original wide-panel partitions and a fireplace surround in every room.  Could we apply a curator’s techniques for careful removal and inventorying and apply it to an entire farmhouse, frame and all?

To guide us in this endeavor, we have looked to John Butler, a man with unparalleled expertise in the field of historic documentation and assessment.  A long time colleague, Arron most recently worked with John on the MFA project.  Since then, Butler has refined his inventory and documentation techniques still further at the Yale University Art Museum.  In the past couple of weeks, Butler has completed the initial photo documentation of the building’s interior walls.  His cameras are capable of capturing an entire wall, without distorting the plumb and level lines of architectural elements.  After first marking a level datum line around the entire room, Butler is able to rectify the photos to an astounding level of accuracy.  Using the datum, and other grid lines, we will be able to measure off of the photos, greatly saving drafting time.  The photos will also be used during dismantling.  Each element will be carefully removed using softwood wedges.  The element will be then be traced on a large photograph, and given a number, brief description and initial assessment.  The room number, wall letter, and item number will be marked in Sharpie on a patch of white shellac on the back of the piece, in the upper left hand corner. A pair of inventoriers will work with a pair of dismantlers for each room.

O'Kane Floor Plan

O'Kane Floor Plan

This past week, I have been working on measuring and drawing a simplified SketchUp model that records the rough layout of architectural elements.  I measured and drew all the floorboards so that we can have a map of their item numbers, as well.

On Friday, our client, Charlie, is coming down to Durham to help with the removal of the first of the plaster layers.  Some of the plaster appears to have been added later, obscuring Georgian Era partition walls.  We can’t wait to see what we will find.

3 thoughts on “Dismantling the O’Kane Farmhouse

  1. Pingback: O’Kane Notebook I | Preservation Timber Framing

  2. Once every few years we drive by the “O’Kane” house to see what new assault has been made on this beautiful, elegant home. We both felt honored to have raised our family through their teens in this house and its gorgeous setting. From 1967 to 1979, our family lived in the “O’Kane House. Richard Brayton, an architect (we believe), had preceeded us. He or his family may have more information on its structure. We both were charmed by its spacious rooms and the marvelous detail, including such things as working indian shutters, and those scrumptious pumpkin pine floorboards in the living room, as well as the lovely stone work in the fireplaces. The central chimney served at least six fireplaces, The living room fireplace was employed on one occasion when a blizzard in the mid 70’s which caused an electrical outage lasting three days. It was not the warmest winter housing but we all felt secure, dry and comfortable. The main house attic was huge and often used by our children as a play area.
    After our occupation, the fireplace in the dining room was destroyed by overlaying common brickwork over historic 6×6 ” imported ceramic tiles. I suspect later occupants or or common vandals had allowed an un-tended fire to scorch dining room floor boards. The kitchen chimney was supported by an arch which I thought was a unique and thoughtful detail, possibly rare at least for the rural northeast. The house’s twin, the other Demerrit House, is across Rte 4 , owned by Bill (deceased) and Edna Woodward certainly any re-construction should investigate this building as well.

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