The Main Reading Room at the Boston Public Library

House Detectives in Training

Each summer I teach a semester long class in ‘Traditional Building’ at the Boston Architectural College in association with the North Bennet Street School as part of the BAC’s Historic Preservation Master’s Degree Program. It’s a low residency program wherein most of the semester is taught online via a series of video lectures and assignments through an online class portal called Moodle, but for an 8 day week the students all fly into Boston for a hands on Intensive session. I have the students from 8:30am-5pm, they get a break for dinner and they have another class in the evenings — it’s an incredibly busy week for all involved but a great way for working professionals to earn a solid degree. This year was no exception.

The Main Reading Room at the Boston Public Library
The Main Reading Room at the Boston Public Library

As part of a class in ‘Traditional Building’ I’m teaching these budding Historic Preservationists the basics of how to ‘read a house’. What does that really mean? It means they are getting an overview of the major building systems used in traditional buildings, how style elements evolved over time and how to look critically at these buildings and learn to read the tool marks and materials to help investigate and document the state of the structure. Effectively it is a crash course in becoming a ‘House Detective’. Certainly a semester is not enough to learn all the ins and outs of a traditional building, but the course helps students get a taste of this wide ranging field and exposes them to some of the tools, trades, experts and other resources that will help them in their careers.

Group Picture in front of the Gibson House Museum
Group Picture in front of the Gibson House Museum

We spent a day touring some major architectural landmarks in downtown Boston — from the Paul Revere House, to the Pierce Hichborn House, to the Otis House, to the Gibson House, to the Boston Public Library and to Trinity Church.

Trinity Church -- by H. H. Richardson
Trinity Church — by H. H. Richardson

We also spent a day in the classroom workshop learning the basics of traditional woodworking. From planing to squaring up a board to building a small tool tote the students got a taste of what traditional bench work is like.

Bill Rainford Teaching Traditional Woodworking
Bill Rainford Teaching Traditional Woodworking

Many students had never used a hand plane or driven a cut nail before so it was a lot of fun showing them the ropes.

Traditional bench work -- squaring up a board etc.
Traditional bench work — squaring up a board etc. (Photo by Patti Vaughn 2014)

Another day during the week we spent with Sara Chase who is a well known Historic Paint Expert.

Sara Chase -- Historic Paint Expert
Sara Chase — Historic Paint Expert

Sara talked about the manufacture of early paints and led the class in mixing their own paints using mullers, oil and pigments.

Making traditional paints by hand with Sara Chase
Making traditional paints by hand with Sara Chase

Students then took some of the paint they made and applied it to the tool boxes they made the day before in the woodworking lessons.

Dierdre and Julie painting their tool totes
Dierdre and Julie painting their tool totes

We took a field trip to the Fairbanks House in Dedham MA which is the oldest standing Timber Frame in North America.

The Fairbanks House -- The Oldest Standing Timber Frame in North America
The Fairbanks House — The Oldest Standing Timber Frame in North America

Erin Leatherbee is the curator at the Fairbanks House and also one of the first graduates of the BAC’s Historic Preservation MDS program.

Erin Leatherbee (Curator) and her intern Aubrey give us an overview and tour of the Fairbanks house
Erin Leatherbee (Curator) and her intern Aubrey give us an overview and tour of the Fairbanks house

Erin and her intern Aubrey gave us an overview of the house and how it evolved over time and also gave us an in depth tour of the house itself.

Field work at the Fairbanks House
Field work at the Fairbanks House

While on site I had the class break out their notepads, tape measures and rulers for some field work.

Stephanie and Patti working on Window Condition Reports
Stephanie and Patti working on Window Condition Reports

Each student was assigned a window and wrote up a detailed window condition report.

Robert Adam talking about historic hardware and fasteners
Robert Adam talking about historic hardware and fasteners at the Saugus Ironworks

During the week we also took a trip to the Saugus Ironworks National Park to tour the facility. It was a very rainy day but with umbrellas in hand we toured the facility and museum, saw the Ironworks in action and participated in a hands on lecture by Robert Adam (founder of the NBSS Preservation Carpentry Program and nationally known preservationist) where he show the evolution of home hardware over time — from wrought and cut nails, suffolk and norfolk latches, patent hinges and all manner of lock-sets. (With all the rain I have very few pictures from that day)

Bob Miller (TA for this class, NBSS CFM Graduate, Historian, and Tour Guide) in his element
Bob Miller (TA for this class, NBSS CFM Graduate, Historian, and Tour Guide) in his element

After the paint lecture we went over to the MFA to tour the Americas Wing. With a baby on the way and good chance I could be called away to the hospital at any time I am thankful to have had Bob Miller as my TA this year. Bob is a graduate of the NBSS Cabinet and Furniture Making Program, an historian, professional tour guide and the perfect fit to help keep the course moving through all the venues we had to cover this year.

Preservation Masonry with Richard Irons
Preservation Masonry with Richard Irons

This year we also had Richard Irons a well known Preservation Mason come by to talk about masonry. The day was a mixture of time spent in the classroom and outdoors mixing mortar, setting some bricks, cutting blocks, re-pointing etc.

A sampling of historic bricks from Richard's collection
A sampling of historic bricks from Richard’s collection

Richard brought with him a nice sampling of some of the many historic bricks in his collection. It’s always interesting to see just how much the look, style and finish varied over time and location.

Felice and Jamie repointing the back of the school
Felice and Jamie re-pointing the back of the school

The students had the opportunity to re-point some mortar joints, lay up some bricks, cut blocks and get a taste for some traditional masonry work.

Dierdre building a brick wall
Dierdre building a brick wall

The last big day of the intensive week was spent timber framing with Brian Vogt who is a fellow graduate of the NBSS Preservation Carpentry Program and is the Carpentry instructor at the school.

Brian Vogt (NBSS Carpentry Instructor) explaining the basics of Timber Framing
Brian Vogt (NBSS Carpentry Instructor) explaining the basics of Timber Framing

After an overview of the tools, techniques and joints used in timber framing it was time to go stand up a frame…

Brian Vogt and Bill Rainford talking about timber framing, 2 man saws etc
Brian Vogt and Bill Rainford talking about timber framing, 2 man saws etc (Photo by Patti Vaughn 2014)

Also unusual about this event was the fact that we stood up the frame in ‘connector’ at the school which is  a new addition that connects two older buildings that make up the main NBSS campus.

Jennifer using the 'Commander' and Susan steadying the ladder.
Jennifer using the ‘Commander’ and Susan steadying the ladder.

It takes a lot of teamwork and heavy lifting to have a safe frame raising and the class did a great job that day.

Another view of the indoor frame
Another view of the indoor frame

With the frame standing it was time to get some quick group pictures and then start the process of disassembling it.

Group shot on the completed timber frame
Group shot on the completed timber frame

I’m exhausted just looking back on all we did that week, but I’m glad we got through it and I am confident that this group will be another great set of ‘House Detectives’ that will be out in the field solving some of the mysteries contained in our historic homes and museums.

Group photo on the last day of the class
Group photo on the last day of the class

If you’d like to learn more about this course or the school, please check out these related posts from prior years.

Take care,
-Bill

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