I came across this article recently in the Vicksburg Daily Commercial Herald, Apr 17, 1888, and knew it had to find the light of day again, there’s just so much interesting information in it. The cast of characters includes what is now the old Warren County Courthouse, only 29 years old in 1888 but already iconic in Vicksburg (and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1968); our old friend William Stanton; and the mysterious Weldon Brothers, the famous builders of the courthouse.
Architect Stanton Finds the Foundations of the Court House Rotten.
Architect William Stanton, who has been employed by the board of supervisors to examine the court house and see what repairs were necessary, began his work yesterday by digging down under the immense pillar which supports the southwest corner of the roof of the western portico. The foundation was built on solid twelve by twelve inch solid [sic] cypress timber and this was found in the last stages of decay, which will render a new foundation necessary. The intention is to subsitute brick for the decayed wood and it is thought that the work can be gotten well under way with the four or five thousand dollars the county will get from the one mill assessment authorized by the late legislature. The building was found in a bad fix generally and while not absolutely dangerous, large and extensive repairs will be required in order to put it in property condition again. The building originally cost $25,000 and is considered one of the finest in the State. Mr. Weldon, the contractor who built the court-house, was to a gentleman of this city a number of years ago that he had used the cypress for a foundation because it had been used with such success in constructing the mammoth custom house in New Orleans. But in New Orleans the piles and foundation timber rested in the water and petrified before decay set in, while with the court house they were dry and much more liable to rot. An entirely new foundation is necessary for the safety of the building, as the timbers are so decayed that large pieces of them can be pulled off by hand and at one point Mr. Stanton pulled out a long spike which had been driven into the wood, which illustrates that the decay is not confined to the surface but extends all the way through, rendering a new foundation all the more necessary.
Daily Commercial Herald, April 17, 1888, p.4
Well, I admit, I took that comment about the famous custom house in New Orleans with a grain of salt . . . until I found an in-depth article on Know Louisiana about the building, under construction from 1848 up to the Civil War and then completed in 1881. Here’s what the article, by John P. Klingman, says about the building’s structure:
The four-story custom house is designed with bearing-wall masonry construction. Unlike most large New Orleans buildings, its foundation is a horizontal grillage of cypress timbers rather than vertical pilings. Above it is a continuous series of inverted masonry arches to further distribute the load. The exterior walls at the ground level are more than five feet thick, with about eighteen inches of granite on the outside and the remainder of solid brick masonry. Interior bearing walls are about thirty inches thick at ground level and reduce in thickness on the floors above.
The immense weight of the structure caused subsidence in the marshy soil of New Orleans, but architects added within the walls iron-bar reinforcements that helped ensure that the building would settle uniformly.
So, amazingly, it appears that the Weldon Brothers at some point in the 1850s observed the custom house’s foundations and decided that would be their strategy for their masterpiece in Vicksburg too. And the rest is history!
See also . . .
Categories: Architectural Research, Courthouses, Renovation Projects, Vicksburg
It would seem to be a difficult feat to dig out the foundations and “re-foundation” the building!
I honestly think they could do anything they put their mind to in this period! For one thing, the cost of labor was low, so they could throw as many people as they needed on the job. You see pictures of construction sites back around the turn of the 20th century and they’re covered with workers. I’ll have to do a little more research to see if any follow-up articles detailed how they did this!
I imagine it might have been similar as to how they would have supported a building prior to moving it. Place temporary footings and piers on either side of the existing pier and footing to be repaired, then remove and or repair the permanent footing.
I did have a chuckle reading the post as I imagined poor old Mr. Stanton having to do all the digging himself.
Love the article thank you for sharing.
Wow I was under the impression that grillage footings were a 1880s engineering development. Guess there isn’t really anything new under the sun. Those highfalutin skyscraper architects were just reusing an old footing technique for a very heavy building?
The type of grillage footing used in Vicksburg and New Orleans was widespread in the 1850s. The Montgomery Block in San Francisco was constructed on a raft of redwood logs. The book Bracing for Disaster: Earthquake-Resistant Architecture and Engineering in San Francisco, 1838-1933 contains a description of how Henry Halleck constructed the building. Despite being a solid masonry structure in the heart of San Francisco, the Montgomery Block survived both fires and earthquakes by being constructed on a raft of redwood logs that sat on the marshly landfill that underpins the Financial District. That raft served as a base isolator, which, coupled with the tie rods running through every floor across the entire building both ways, made it earthquake proof. It survived over a century until replaced by a surface parking lot in 1959. William Pereira’s Transamerica Pyramid, another earthquake-proof building, sits on the site today.
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That is amazing!