June 2, 2016

“The Vehemence of the Flames”: The History of Three Fires at the Old State House

For the past few months, one of our Education Associates has been exploring the history of fires at the Old State House.  Her final installment is on the 1921 fire, but you can catch up by reading about the 1747 fire and the 1832 fire

1921 Fire


In its history, the Old State House has been ravaged by three separate fires.  The third and final fire burned through the building on April 13, 1921. A pedestrian passing by the Old State House noticed smoke billowing from the upper floors and alerted authorities. The fire department acted swiftly to extinguish the flames.  As the Old State House served as a museum to Boston history in 1921, more than just the structure was at stake.  The museum housed hundreds of irreplaceable objects. While no objects were harmed, the building was not so lucky.  It suffered injury to the third floor, roof, and wooden laths at an estimated cost of $10,000. Water devastation to interior walls and the ceiling exacerbated problems.

In the aftermath of this third fire, the Fire Protection Department recommended that the Bostonian Society add fire protection to the building. The Society added fire stop blocks between the interior brick walls and improved housekeeping procedures. Sprinklers, however, were not installed as the water could potentially harm the priceless objects exhibited in the museum.

The Old State House has endured fires, storms, and natural disasters that could have destroyed the building entirely, but happily for the people of Boston it still stands as a testament to the rich 18th century history of Boston and the founding of the United States.

By Deirdre Kutt, Education Associate


May 25, 2016

Preservation Month at the Old State House (Part IV)

May is Preservation Month, a chance to celebrate the historic buildings that make up our cultural landscape, and to honor the continued work that is done to maintain this building. At the Old State House, we are taking this opportunity to look back on some of the preservation and restoration projects that the Society has completed in the last decade. Matt Ottinger, our Director of Facilities and Historic Preservation, concludes his series this week with a look at work that was done from 2012-2015 but read his previous posts here

West Façade, East Balcony, and Lion & Unicorn Restoration

 

West Façade

In 2012, the Society convened a team that included Judy Selwyn, a historic preservation consultant; David Storeygard, an architect; Mark Webster, a structural engineer; and myself, to review conditions of the west façade. Using a man-lift the team inspected the Old State House with a strong focus on its west façade. By viewing the conditions up close, the group found major deterioration issues.

The team concluded that the building had been hemorrhaging moisture, leading to decay and ice-damage. The OSH, built in 1713, was not designed to have a modern HVAC system and the wood and masonry of the building had not responded well in the 25 years since its installation.  During cold months, positive air pressure maintained inside the building had pushed warm humid air out, through cracks and openings in the façades.  Where the humid air encountered the cold surfaces of windows, walls, and sheathing, it condensed and froze on the building, forming ice-dams and causing cracks in masonry and rot in the wood.  Water drip marks are visible on the windows and balustrades. The Society installed a relief fan and ventilation in the building’s tower to alleviate the HVAC concerns.

Brick work at the Old State House
The Society then focused its efforts on restoration of the west façade. The preservation team recommended rebuilding the upper chimney section, salvaging and reusing fully-sound bricks, and supplementing those with new, matching bricks. Cast stone elements were replaced with Portland Brownstone, and exterior lighting fixtures were replaced with smaller LED fixtures.  On the parapet, sealant was applied to the step-flashing on the rear side and ‘L’-shaped lead caps will be added at the coping wall transition where the scrolls sit. All mortar joints of the entire west façade were cut out and repointed. This work included the resetting of loose bricks and the replacement of any isolated, deteriorated bricks. The cement wash of the two belt courses was replaced as necessary.

Windows on the west façade were in various states of deterioration. All of them required sanding, feathering, and spot-priming of their surfaces, as well as replacement of defective putty. The two ox-eye windows needed to be removed, so that they could be stripped, repaired, and painted off-site, before they were reinstalled with new flashing and sealant. The center window on the second floor needs a new wood sill and sealant.


East Balcony

The restored balcony, ready to be assembled and reinstalled
The iconic balcony, from which the Declaration of Independence was read to Bostonians in 1776, was in need of restoration. Due to exposure to severe weather conditions in Boston's historic center, wood and masonry throughout the building had deteriorated significantly over the years. The Society executed the following work in 2014-15:
  • Replacement of the decayed wooden corner posts and rails;
  • Repair of the doors and surrounds;
  • Re-flashing and sealing of areas connecting the masonry and wood;
  • Repainting of all woodwork. 

Lion & Unicorn Restoration

In the fall of 2014 the Society teamed with Skylight Studios to regild the lion and unicorn statues that sit atop the building on the east façade. Using a man-lift and crane, the two statues were carefully lowered into specially constructed crates for transportation to Skylight Studios. Once on-site and unpacked, the statues received much needed care. First the remaining gilding had to be stripped from the statues and the copper cleaned. Next, the statues were covered in a special primer and a clear material called size. The size is a tacky substance that gold and platinum leaf adheres to.  The process was complete once the many individual sheets of gold or platinum were layered on the statues. The lion and unicorn statues were then returned to the Old State House and revealed during a small ceremony before being reinstalled on their individual perches.


Preservation and restoration work at the Old State House is on-going.  For information on how you can help preserve this national treasure, please call 617-720-1713 ext. 16, or send us an email.

By Matt Ottinger, Director of Facilities and Historic Preservation

May 19, 2016

Preservation Month at the Old State House (Part III)

May is Preservation Month, a chance to celebrate the historic buildings that make up our cultural landscape, and to honor the continued work that is done to maintain this building. At the Old State House, we are taking this opportunity to look back on some of the preservation and restoration projects that the Society has completed in the last decade. Follow along as Matt Ottinger, our Director of Facilities and Historic Preservation, highlights four of our most important projects to maintain this iconic 300+ year old building. Catch up by reading Matt's first post and second post.
 

Restoration of Whitmore Hall


During the 18th century the first floor of the Old State House was largely an open hall, with a row of columns down the middle and two stairways with small offices beneath them, dividing the expanse approximately into thirds. Now known as Whitmore Hall, this space served as a merchants’ exchange, and in this capacity also served as a place to exchange news and political views, particularly about the actions of the legislature and the Royal Governor upstairs. During the 19th century, two partition walls were erected to divide the space on the east end of the first floor. There was a wall crossing north to south dividing the space in half, and then an east-west wall on one side of the north-south wall. Those walls, however, were shortened in 1903, after construction of the subway station beneath this part of the building required that the first floor be raised.

Whitmore Hall, looking NE before restoration
A 2007 National Endowment for the Humanities panel of scholars and community members proposed opening up the first floor as much as possible, in order to restore some sense of the merchants’ exchange. Contributing to the 18th century feel of the building would be the primary goal, but the panel also suggested that removing the walls in Whitmore Hall would aid in setting the building in a place.

After receiving approval, the project got underway in early 2009. We opened up a few exploratory holes in the ceiling of the space, and what we found surprised us. On one hand, we confirmed that the partition walls definitely were not load-bearing. On the other hand, we found that the ceiling had pulled away from the joists by as much as four inches.

Whitmore Hall, looking NE after restoration
In the next few days, in addition to the engineer and our architects, we had several professionals consult on this problem. The consensus was that the entire ceiling in this section of the building was not structurally sound and should be replaced. The outermost layer of plaster dated to the 1980s, with metal lathe. Above that was a horsehair plaster layer with wood lathe, dating to 1882. While it was not possible to retain the horsehair plaster and wood lathe without compromising structural integrity, we did retain the ceiling framing, and added additional support. We were also able to retain the 1882 plaster molding running along the perimeter of the room.

Removing the old plaster allowed us to examine and document the ceiling’s support system, including four 13” x 13” wooden girders spanning about 34 feet, dating to 1748. One is spaced between each window, spanning from the north wall to the south wall, throughout the first floor. The girders are among the building’s oldest surviving architectural elements, and the four in this section of the building were in quite good shape. One girder had to be repaired and sistered with steel I-beams as it had been previously cut and patched with wood. As part of the project, we installed a viewing panel to allow visitors to see one of these massive old beams for themselves.

We even left clues as to how the room had been previously divided:
  • The Douglas Fir floor boards that run perpendicular to the rest of the floor to signify the wall that once ran east-west through the space.
  • The furthest east column was left unique and does not match the others, as it was installed at a later date and is a reminder of the division.
  • We chose not to continue the center beam that runs along the column line in Whitmore Hall, but the termination of it will be a trace of the former division.
  • The “floor rail” in the old Preservation Room was retained along the east and north walls as a reminder of the space having once been used for an office.
At this time we also undertook the restoration of the medallion in Representatives Hall. Water damage to the ceiling had prompted an investigation of the historic medallion, and it was found to be in need of some minor repairs and securing. Conservator Louise Freedman of L.H. Freedman Studios (a division of Boston Creative Inc.) was brought in to restore the medallion. Originally thought to be plaster, the medallion was actually found to be made of carved wood. Dating to the 1882 renovation of the Old State House by George Clough, the medallion was covered in multiple layers of paint. The paint was scraped off by hand over the course of three days. The wood was then sealed and an epoxy was injected behind the medallion to re-secure it to the ceiling. It was then primed and painted. The final step was to spread a tinted glaze over the medallion to highlight the carving.


Check back next week for our final installment of our Preservation Month series!

By Matt Ottinger, Director of Facilities and Historic Preservation

May 11, 2016

Preservation Month at the Old State House (Part II)

May is Preservation Month, a chance to celebrate the historic buildings that make up our cultural landscape, and to honor the continued work that is done to maintain this building. At the Old State House, we are taking this opportunity to look back on some of the preservation and restoration projects that the Society has completed in the last decade. Follow along as Matt Ottinger, our Director of Facilities and Historic Preservation, highlights four of our most important projects to maintain this iconic 300+ year old building. Catch up by reading Matt's first post here.

Restoration of the Tower 2008


Old State House with tower scaffolding
During the 18th century, the Old State House tower was one of the highest spots in Boston and an excellent place to watch the ships come and go in the harbor. Eight years ago it was an excellent place to get wet during a nor-easter. Much of the tower’s wood siding had become so rotted that water streamed inside during bad storms, then seeped down to the lower floors of the building. The damage also threatened the still-functioning 1831 Simon Willard clock, the face of which is located in between the lion and unicorn statues on the east façade.

The Tower Restoration Project took place from April to July 2008, and included replacement of wood siding on all four faces, repair and reglazing of the tower windows, installation of new flat-seam copper roofing, and selective repair or replacement of wood balusters and other deteriorated architectural features.

The last piece of new siding is installed on the tower
Over the course of the project, I was up on the scaffolding every day, coordinating the work with the preservation crew and investigating the tower’s history. The architectural elements that make up the tower do not all date to the same time period; some are as old as 1748 and others are as new as 1990. Dating these elements and determining how they fit together was an important part of the project. The crew made some interesting discoveries, including: an intricate system of angled beams, dating to 1748, which serve as framing for the dome; what are likely to be 18th-century boards, held in place with hand-wrought nails, underneath the tower's copper flashing; and charred wood from the building's last major fire, in 1921.

To find out what else was discovered, see more pictures, and learn more details about the tower project, visit the project blog.

By Matt Ottinger, Director of Facilities and Historic Preservation

May 4, 2016

Preservation Month at the Old State House (Part I)

May is Preservation Month, a chance to celebrate the historic buildings that make up our cultural landscape, and to honor the continued work that is done to maintain this building.  At the Old State House, we are taking this opportunity to look back on some of the preservation and restoration projects that the Society has completed in the last decade.  Follow along as Matt Ottinger, our Director of Facilities and Historic Preservation, highlights four of the most important projects that have preserved this iconic 300+ year old building.

Restoration of the Northeast Corner 2006


The Old State House during restoration
The Old State House's bricks are the oldest part of the building. This aging masonry has long been subject to water penetration, particularly at the northeast corner, where surrounding office towers focus and magnify the effects of rain and wind off the harbor. This problem escalated in the fall of 2005, when the remains of Hurricane Wilma passed through Boston and brought the water-penetration problem to crisis proportions. Water poured through the walls to the interior, damaging plaster and wainscoting, and threatening the building's structural integrity as well as the priceless collection of historical artifacts housed inside.

During the summer of 2006, the Bostonian Society spearheaded a three-month project to investigate the causes of persistent water damage to the northeast corner, to restore masonry on the east and north façades of the building, interior plaster and wainscoting, and to create a permanent solution to ongoing water penetration. The Society raised nearly $2 million for this and the ensuing phase of the project—more than its entire annual operating budget—within a mere six months.

Water damage at the Old State House
This project won a national award from the American Association for State and Local History and is featured in an episode of the History Channel's Save Our History series.

By Matt Ottinger, Director of Facilities and Historic Preservation