- Aaron Marcavitch, Yesterdays Island, 2004
All too often the Historic District Commission receives an application
for a demolition, usually because "the building is too far gone"
or "we just can't save the building." Unfortunately, that means
that the building probably was not maintained to a level necessary to
save it. Preservation is inherently a reactionary process, but maintenance
is a proactive process. Stop the rot before it stops your building.
Many of the island's houses are now being jacked up off their current
foundations (or what little remains of them) and having brand new foundations
poured. Not only does this provide a secure base on which to rest, this
usually provides additional living space below ground. While generally
this is a good way to save historic buildings, some attention should be
paid to what is being destroyed in the process. Does this process require
complete replacement of sills (the beams that run along the base of a
structure usually attached to the foundation)? Does it require destroying
original foundation material that might be important to understanding
the history of the building? Most importantly does it destroy some sort
of relic or archaeological remain below the structure? The idea that a
building can be jacked up and have a whole new floor beneath it also produces
an interesting issue regarding the way buildings breathes.
Historically buildings were built with gaps, spaces, and open places where
air could move through the structure to constantly dry out the building.
They were never as weather tight as they are now. Unfortunately, that
means that new infill, new windows, new shingles, and new foundations
are built in a way that best suits new construction. The new parts do
not allow a structure to vent properly and therefore, they do not "breathe."
When you look around your historic building, notice the way it breathes.
Are their gaps to let moisture in and out? (Fortunately there is not vinyl
siding here on Nantucket, a key contributor to structural rot in other
communities.) Have basement vents been provided? Has the attic been allowed
to vent the hot dry air? Is there a way for the hot moist air created
in basements and crawl spaces to vent up through the building and out
through the roof?
Maintaining a building also means you have to pay close attention to the
windows. Windows are the most common element where the HDC sees applications
that may not be necessary. Nearly every week someone asks if they can
replace their windows, many of them over fifty years old. There are varying
answers to this, but lets tackle the real problem so that perhaps the
answer does not have to be given. First, if you have a historic window,
examine it to see if the sash is still plumb and rides up and down in
the track. Take the window out and examine it for rot or bad patch jobs.
Repairing a window with some window caulk only takes a few minutes of
time and can save a window for years. Some do not like the idea of taking
on this type of repair job, but I promise if you work at it slowly, it
will save you time and money in the end. Those people who made those windows
over a hundred years ago knew how to make them right. Secondly, examine
the jambs to look for rot. Obviously, the outside is going to have a mild
level of rot over time, especially if it was softwood and left unpainted.
Look at the way the pulleys and weights sit in the window. If they are
not functional, you may have to open up the casing to repair them. If
you have gotten to a point where repair is necessary, it may be time to
call in the professional help. The HDC office has access to this type
of information if you are seeking it. Lastly, look over your windows to
determine if the glass is worth saving. Glass is inherently a liquid.
If you took a piece out, you may notice it is thicker on the bottom than
the top. That means that thickness, and the wavy look, you see is actually
the glass slowly sliding downward. If you cannot save the glass, there
are replacement options, but please check in with the HDC before going
Maintenance of the structure is also critical. While there is not a historic
shingle to be found (although some clapboard might be) on the island,
the frame or structure is elemental to the building. If the structure
has been hacked at, cut into, and generally made a mess of, you most certainly
want to think about shoring up the structure. However, all buildings suffer
a bit over time and most have some sort of cut marks. (You can actually
date a structure by the way the cut marks are on the timbers.) Examine
the work to see if it damaging to the integrity of the building. If not,
make a promise to preserve it. (The Nantucket Preservation Trust offers
interior preservation easements that may be worth looking into.) It is
critical that the structure be saved to ensure a proper continuity over
time. All too often, we see projects come through that shows major demolition
of historic structure. Remember the interior walls are structure too.
If you take out a supporting wall inside the building, you may be asking
for trouble when the floors start to squeak (which can be a sign of a
Maintenance also means examining wiring, heating, and other services.
Simple examination often indicates the status of the systems. One of my
pet peeves, though, is the total removal of the historic elements. For
example, while you will never find me advocating for the retention of
"knob and tube" wiring, you should at least maintain some of
it as an indicator that it was present at one time. Old heating ducts
can become breeding grounds for pests and other critters, but if sealed
off or at least properly documented, these can lead to great information
about a house's history.
Maintenance can be an annoying inconvenience, especially for the nomadic
lifestyles many of us lead today. However, keeping a watchful eye over
our homes, both new and old, will make sure that all of us benefit from
a better built environment. Plus if houses are maintained it means that
those of us in preservation may not have to fight the battles we have
to fight every day. I, for one, would not mind if I were out of a job
(at least a little bit)!
Again, if you have questions about maintaining and restoring your home,
please contact the Historic District Commission office. We would be thrilled
to talk to you about what you can do to help protect your home.
On a side note, many of you who may have read these articles over the
past summer may have heard about my dear dog Aussie, whom shared many
of our experiences in Nantucket's open spaces - as well as lots of time
in the car in America's less than thrilling places. She passed away after
a tragic accident. The community here has poured out its heart to us and
we wanted to make sure they were all acknowledged in turn. Nantucket's
open spaces will never be quite the same again. Thank you Aussie for making
those open spaces and trips all the better.