A year ago last April, just after rush hour, a man stole a Suburu in Cape Elizabeth, drunk-drove it to Standish, crossed two lanes of traffic, surfed a lawn and crashed into the Marrett House, coming to rest in its historic parlor. The stout framing members were fractured and the frame and panel wainscot splintered, but the wall’s 12-lite window survived. Not a single pane of original glass was broken. The plaster wall adjacent the window was thrust inwards and the split lath separated from the broken studs, but the 1847 wallpaper pasted to it remains intact. It’s wacky that, out of all the buildings along the way, the driver hit a well-preserved relic of the late 18th century, set well back from the road. And I can’t decide whether that’s good fortune or bad. Route 25 is a well-traveled road, and at least that part of the Marrett House is uninhabited.
The night of the crash, employees of Historic New England worked late into the night stabilizing and weatherizing the wall. In the following weeks, conservators carefully collected and organized the shards of woodwork and PTF assisted with flashing and estimated the repairs. When PTF came back to site three weeks ago, nearly every piece of splintered woodwork was inventoried and accounted for. Half of the paneled wall was still ajar, in place, and the other half lay in the barn loft, spread out like an exploded schematic.
This is an exciting and challenging project for us. The specifications are detailed and Historic New England requires strict oversight, but the process allows us to learn about other conservation technologies and refine our methodology. Museum clients prioritize conserving material and reversibility more than private clients. Where a private client might want a dutchman repair to a broken stile or rail, well-cemented to the original material, Historic New England wants to preserve the shards of original material, and a barrier layer of Paraloid B-72 between the epoxy and the original wood. While we usually would use West System, a brand of epoxy that has good adhesion, penetration and permanance, here the client requested Araldite, an epoxy that doesn’t penetrate the surface and, with a barrier layer, is ultimately reversible. Ultimately, it is much nicer to work with a client who really cares about their property rather than one who doesn’t really care what we do or how we do it. Fortunately, clients who don’t care about their building don’t choose PTF.
For me, the exciting part of this project is fitting together the shards of wood like a jigsaw puzzle. The task allows me to connect with the mind of the original builder, and explore his methods of construction, as well as reminisce about the 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles my aunt, my mother and I used to construct every Christmas. With all the work that Historic New England completed before we got there, I think the Christmas puzzles might have been harder.
The plaster hangs on individual riven lath, which fell out of fashion soon after the Marrett House was built. By 1800, most houses were built with split-board, or accordian lath, in which a single wide board, of low quality, is split and stretched down the studs. The riven lath at Marrett House is perfectly clear with impossibly straight, tight-grain; the kind of wood that many carpenters lament can’t be found today to be used for interior trim and parlor reproductions.
The quality of lath may have contributed to the survival of the plaster and wallpaper that hung on it. In the third photo, above, one can see the degree to which the wall was pushed into the room, and the damage to the studs. It should be noted that the original studs and sill were in unusually sound condition, and showed no signs of rot. The car hit the wall with enough force to completely sever the studs from their joinery.
The Marrett House project is already well on its way to completion. The stud repairs have been fit, the B-72 and epoxy arrived yesterday, and we will begin test-gluing the panels tomorrow. It’s a shame that such an historic artifact suffered from the random recklessness of a drunk driver, but the very qualities that lent this building its longevity allowed it to survive such an injury. Many of our historic buildings have suffered far worse from roof leaks and poor maintenance.
I hadn’t seen before marriage marks like the ones used to align framing members in the west wall; I wonder whether they might be unique to the builder or to the region. Has anyone out there wandering the interwebs come across this type of marriage mark before?
For more photos of the marriage marks, riven lath and the rest of our process, click on the slideshow, below: