AmeriCorps Presents Hands-On Preservation Lessons in West Virginia

Posted on: February 3rd, 2011 by Guest Writer

Written by Crystal Whiters

Elkins (West Virginia) City Hall

Elkins (West Virginia) City Hall

As I type this blog entry, I am sitting in an office in the penthouse suite of the Elkins City Hall. I know, this makes me sound pretty official, however, this is an unoccupied, dusty office with peeling plaster that looks out into the even more dusty former workout room of the City of Elkins Police Department. In place where windows once hung are pieces of plywood. However, fear not, for myself and three other AmeriCorps members are remedying the situation!

In May of 2010 I graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a masters degree in architecture (historic preservation concentration) and a masters degree in urban planning (community development concentration). It seemed like a logical progression to work with my hands for about a year after spending the summer post-graduation surveying historic buildings and historic districts in rural Indiana. So, for the last four months I have been living and working in Elkins, WV as a member of the AmeriCorps program sponsored by the Appalachian Forest Heritage Area. In total, twenty AmeriCorps members serve on three different teams – conservation, heritage development, and historic preservation.

Restoration work at the Collett House in Beverly, WV.

Restoration work at the Collett House in Beverly, WV.

Standing on a ladder and scrapping paint from the exterior clapboard siding of the Collett House in Beverly, WV is how I began the service term with the other historic preservation team members. The site sponsor for the Collett House is the Beverly Heritage Center, under the direction of Chelley Depp. The year 1772 is the earliest year designated as the year of construction for the house. Montgomery “Gum” Hart built the original log fort on which later owners built additions. Andrew J. Collett and family owned the house 1871-1948. The two-story, L-shaped house with a Federal-style entryway served as a hospital during the Civil War. Before the first snow fall, the team reached a good stopping point for scrapping and painting, with nearly all of the exterior clear of the old lead paint and covered with two fresh coats of paint.

Back in Elkins, the team members and I worked with AmeriCorps alum and site supervisor for the rehabilitation of Riverside School, Joe Sabatino, at Riverside School. The community built this historic school to educate the African American population in and around Elkins in two phases: the first story in 1906 for eight grades and the second story in 1925 to expand the school for ten grades. After the school closed in 1954 due to school integration, it passed from several owners until its last incarnation as a mechanic's garage. In preparation for the rehabilitation, we organized the first floor classroom/garage conversion into an organized workshop equipped with lumber, hardware, and tools.

The Riverside School rehabilitation has been a valuable resource for the team to learn about a critical component of historic preservation – the bid process. In preparation for the bid package that contained the scope of work, we learned how to map the areas on each elevation that are in need of re-pointing. Additionally, we surveyed the windows, noting the existing condition of the windows such as missing sashes and muntins. Also, I drew as-built drawings of the school to assist the owners with the rehabilitation and with the space planning process.

Learning historic plaster repair skills.

Learning historic plaster repair skills.

As the mercury began to decline and the snow began to fall, we moved our AmeriCorps operation indoors. After receiving training from fellow team member Joey on window restoration, we began restoring the windows from the fourth floor penthouse of Elkins City Hall, a building that is an interesting case in adaptive reuse. Built in 1917, it was originally home to the Elkins Post Office and Federal Building. Today, it contains city offices and the police station.

In addition to providing hands-on restoration support to four buildings in the area, the preservation team members and I have received training in Elkins and at the Preservation Alliance West Virginia state-wide preservation conference. At the conference we learned from master plasterer Sarel Venter how to repair historic plaster and back in Elkins Joe Sabatino trained us on how to reconstitute deteriorated wood. We have applied this knowledge to our winter indoor project.

The team members and I are making progress on those City Hall windows – yesterday we installed the first beautifully restored window, eight have an “in-progress status,” and about seven remain. I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to experience small town living in the United States while doing work that I set out to do eight years ago when I decided to return to school to study architecture and historic preservation.

Crystal Whiters, a recipient of a 2007 Mildred Colodny Diversity Scholarship for Graduate Study in Historic Preservation, is a member of the Appalachian Forest Heritage Area AmeriCorps Program. When she is not restoring windows, she can be found sliding down a hill on an inner tube.

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