Overly Loved Historic Buildings

Welcome back from Thanksgiving–I trust ya’ll are fat and happy and ready to jump right into the Christmas season with good cheer. Personally, I find that I am always full of good cheer, so Christmas is no change for me.

During the week off–and thanks for the vacation time, ya’ll–I had a chance to go through lots of photos I’ve taken on my recent jaunts around the state, and I thought now might be a good time to bring up the topic of good intentions and how they pave the road to . . . well, to be blunt, Hades. I refer particularly to the state of being “loved to death” and how this sometimes happens to our beloved historic buildings around the state.

A month or so ago, I was traveling up Hwy. 17 toward Lexington, and as I am wont to do, decided to go visit an old friend who sits just off the highway. I turned off at the Franklin road, now marked primarily by a large water tower nearby rather than any recognizable community, and drove down a primeval dirt road, sunken with age and use and covered with an overgrowth of very old trees. My object was the Franklin Presbyterian Church, a simple Greek Revival temple-form church built around 1850 and clad in clapboard painted white, sitting on a slight hill overlooking a wonderfully evocative graveyard.

But when I drove up the hill and saw the church in the sunlight, I gave a start of horror. In place of the white church I had known, I was faced with a horribly denuded wooden building topped by a glaring metal roof that temporarily blinded me. For a brief moment, I thought it was a new building, but when I got out of the car to get a better look, I realized that it was the same old building that was now in the process of being stripped down to its underparts.

Looking closer, I found that the stripping is apparently being done with a rotary or other type of circular sander, whose marks are clearly evident in the wood. As noted in “Exterior Paint Problems in Historic Buildings” (Kay D. Weeks and David W. Look, AIA) rotary sanding tools can do great damage to wood:

Not Recommended

Rotary Drill Attachments: Rotary drill attachments such as the rotary sanding disc and the rotary wire stripper should be avoided. The disc sander–usually a disc of sandpaper about 5 inches in diameter secured to a rubber based attachment which is in turn connected to an electric drill or other motorized housing–can easily leave visible circular depressions in the wood which are difficult to hide, even with repainting. The rotary wire stripper–clusters of metals wires similarly attached to an electric drill-type unit–can actually shred a wooden surface and is thus to be used exclusively for removing corrosion and paint from metals.

Notice how the grain of the wood is very raised (click on the picture to get a larger version), showing that the less dense “summer wood” between the rings has actually been either sanded or washed away with a high-pressure washer. And also see how the bottom of the clapboard piece looks like its been through a grinder–this is wood that originally was planed and smoothed, not rough and cracked.

The National Park Service, in its Preservation Brief #6: “Dangers of Abrasive Cleaning to Historic Buildings” has this to say on the subject:

Wood: Most types of wood used for buildings are soft, fibrous and porous, and are particularly susceptible to damage by abrasive cleaning. Because the summer wood between the lines of the grain is softer than the grain itself, it will be worn away by abrasive blasting or power tools, leaving an uneven surface with the grain raised and often frayed or “fuzzy.” Once this has occurred, it is almost impossible to achieve a smooth surface again except by extensive hand sanding, which is expensive and will quickly negate any costs saved earlier by sandblasting. Such harsh cleaning treatment also obliterates historic tool marks, fine carving and detailing, which precludes its use on any interior or exterior woodwork which has been hand planed, milled or carved.

Exposure of the bare surface even for a short length of time also dries out the already dry wood, causing cracking and possible moisture infiltration problems in the future. Let’s assume that there was a need for some sort of paint removal on this historic church–possibly there was cracking or alligatoring that needed removal before applying another new coat. In that case, the gentlest method possible should have been used to remove only up to the layer that was causing problems–not stripping completely down to bare wood. Often simple (albeit labor intensive) scraping and sanding with a small orbital sander does the trick.

I’m not sure whether a high-pressure washer has been used here, but those tools have been the bane of many a historic building, again usually with the best of intentions by the owners who want to clean the building up. Even a “low” pressure of 1000 psi (my dad’s washer goes up to 3200 psi!) can do serious damage to a wood or even brick or stone building, causing long-term moisture problems and rot (400-600 is the range I’ve read is acceptable). Of course, sandblasting shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence as “historic building”–NEVER, EVER DO IT!

I have no doubt that this was all done with good intentions, but it’s sad to see a historic building stripped to such an extent that the original grace and craftsmanship of the building have been diminished. Let’s all hope for the best for Franklin Presbyterian Church.

Categories: Churches, Cool Old Places, Historic Preservation, National Park Service, Renovation Projects

2 replies

  1. Do you know what the church looks like now, Malvaney? After seven years, the after effects of the damage shown in this post should be appearing quite clearly.


  2. I’ve passed by Franklin Road many times since this post, but have never summoned the nerve to go back and look. Maybe someone with more energy than I have can check on it and tell us how it’s doing.


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