After Fire, a Family Doubles Down on Preservation

Restoring an historic building takes a lot of stamina. The sense of warmth and meaning one feels within a restored structure comes from the labor invested by the craftspeople who built it and the experiences of the community that used it. Once complete, the Steiner-Truesdale residence in Newfields, N.H.,will reflect not only a century of life as a church, but also the owners’ dedication to restore it as a family home, twice. In April, a fire destroyed much of the interior, an 8-year long labor of love for owners Jack Steiner and Kimberly Truesdale. In November, PTF began its role in the home’s re-restoration.

Ribs and Roof system

Ribs and Roof system. Photos by Brian Cox

Newfields’ Sacred Heart Church was built in the 1880’s — a transition frame, 40′ wide by 80′ long. Five interior timber bents were constructed from a pair of posts, a pair of steeply pitched rafters, two pairs of ribs and a collar tie. The lower ribs brace the posts to the rafters and the upper ribs brace the rafters to the collar tie. The ribs are let-in and bolted, rather than mortise-and-tenoned, reflecting the dominant technology of the period. A tie rod takes the place of a tie beam, tying the eave walls together. Had the church had been built in stone, in the original Gothic style, buttresses would have provided the support necessary to counter the outward thrust of the rafters. The roof system is substantial, consisting of the principal rafters let in with principal purlins and infilled with common rafters. The balloon studs run from sill to plate, and are spaced approximately 20 inches on center. The plate consists of doubled 2x stock, which is mortised and fit onto a tenon at the top of each of the posts.

Stopped chamfer detail

Stopped chamfer detail

PTF was hired to rebuild a second floor that had been destroyed in the fire. The height of the floor was determined by the tie rods, so that the rods could be enclosed between the 10″ high floor joists. Two 8″ x 10″ x 60′ floor girts run parallel to the eaves, supporting the joists. Five pairs of posts, in line with the bents, support the girts. The posts rest on first-floor girts, or carrying timbers, parallel to the girts above. The carrying timbers rest on masonry piers set directly beneath the posts, point-loading the interior structure to ground. Ultimately, the entire frame will be exhibited within the living space. The timbers were planed, and the crew matched a chamfer detail from work that Jack completed: a 1″ chamfer on all posts and girts, a 5/8″ chamfer on joists and braces, stopped 1 1/2″ from joinery.

Once onsite, Brian and the crew’s first step was to unload and organize the stock. In addition to the six 8″ x 10″ x 20+” stock required to create the second floor girts, there were more than seventy-five 4″ x 10″ x 12′ joists, ten posts, and sixteen white oak braces. The crew, Brian, Shawn and Seth, took half a day to lug lumber, moving the timbers along a pick through the window, and another day just to organize it all. Organizing timbers is like sharpening chisels –t ain’t romantic, but it’s necessary to a well-run job. A clean and well-organized job site makes a¬†big difference in the efficiency and accuracy of the good stuff, such as cutting joinery.

Shawn, girt timbers, and Shawn's breath

Shawn, girt timbers, and Shawn’s breath

All the joinery was cut and test-fit on sawhorses prior to installation. Each 60′ second floor girt was made up of three 20+’ sticks joined with two bladed scarf joints.¬†Cutting a frame indoors in November sounds like a pretty cushy job, but because the floor girts and joists were so long and still green, the crew wanted to do everything possible to prevent them from corkscrewing, and this meant working without heat. With the heat off, the timbers would dry more slowly, ensuring their stability. Furniture makers will sometimes avoid kiln-dried wood, instead stacking freshly-cut boards evenly; plenty of air flow lets the boards dry naturally over the course of years.

Thanks, Grandma! the scarf fits perfectly.

Thanks, Grandma! the scarf fits perfectly.

Each of the posts was connected to the floor girt by two braces. After cutting, all of the brace joinery, as well as the six scarves, were fit and laid out on sawhorses. In order to prevent the joinery from opening as the timbers dried, the crew decided to draw-bore all the joinery. Draw-boring is a joinery technique in which the pin hole in the tenon is placed 1/8″ closer to the shoulder of the joint than the pin hole in the mortised piece. A tapered pin is driven through the holes, squeezing the mortise and tenoned pieces closer together.

Lee and Scott assist with assembly

Lee and Scott assist with assembly

After the pinholes were drilled, the crew erected two towers of staging along the center of the church. Using a chain fall, they lifted the three pieces of one girt into place, and re-assembled and pinned the girt on the staging. Next, they righted the posts and threaded their feet through holes in the first floor, maneuvering the posts into mortises on the carrying timbers below. Due to variation in floor depth, the posts were buried 9 1/2″ – 22″ below the surface of the first floor. The crew squared and plumbed the posts and temporarily braced them to the exterior walls with 2x lumber. Then the oak braces were fit into their mortises and pinned.

Second floor girt in position, and blurry

Second floor girt in position, and blurry

Three one-ton chain hoists were needed to raise the assembled 50′ floor girt into position, 4 1/2″ above the post shoulders (and 1/2″ above the ends of the tenons). The girt just kissed the 1″ round tie rods, which ultimately run between the 10″ high floor joists. When the weight was released from the staging ledgers, those ledgers sprung up, and as the ledgers were removed, their wedges popped out with a “ping.” Coordinating efforts, the crew released the chain falls and slowly lowered the girt onto the five post and eight brace tenons. Then they pinned the joinery. For the second girt: rinse, and repeat.

Floor framing, resurrected

Floor framing, header visible near window, far left

The second floor is supported by more than seventy-five 4″ x 10″ x 12′ joists, which were lifted into place using a winch. At each of the eight windows, the crew created a window well by inserting a 6″ x 10″ header between the joists adjacent to the window, so the top of the window and the arched trim can be seen from the first floor. The header fit into a pocket into the adjacent full-length joists, and the short joist sits in a pocket in the header.

With the framing now complete, the Steiner-Truesdale family can finish their adaptive re-use of this Gothic Revival beauty. We were truly saddened to hear of the fire, and now we are honored to be part of this building’s journey.

Completed framing, from below

Floor framing, from below

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