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Minimum Maintenance

- Aaron Marcavitch, Yesterdays Island, 2004


All too often the Historic District Commission receives an application for a demolition, usually because "the building is too far gone" or "we just can't save the building." Unfortunately, that means that the building probably was not maintained to a level necessary to save it. Preservation is inherently a reactionary process, but maintenance is a proactive process. Stop the rot before it stops your building.

Many of the island's houses are now being jacked up off their current foundations (or what little remains of them) and having brand new foundations poured. Not only does this provide a secure base on which to rest, this usually provides additional living space below ground. While generally this is a good way to save historic buildings, some attention should be paid to what is being destroyed in the process. Does this process require complete replacement of sills (the beams that run along the base of a structure usually attached to the foundation)? Does it require destroying original foundation material that might be important to understanding the history of the building? Most importantly does it destroy some sort of relic or archaeological remain below the structure? The idea that a building can be jacked up and have a whole new floor beneath it also produces an interesting issue regarding the way buildings breathes.

Historically buildings were built with gaps, spaces, and open places where air could move through the structure to constantly dry out the building. They were never as weather tight as they are now. Unfortunately, that means that new infill, new windows, new shingles, and new foundations are built in a way that best suits new construction. The new parts do not allow a structure to vent properly and therefore, they do not "breathe." When you look around your historic building, notice the way it breathes. Are their gaps to let moisture in and out? (Fortunately there is not vinyl siding here on Nantucket, a key contributor to structural rot in other communities.) Have basement vents been provided? Has the attic been allowed to vent the hot dry air? Is there a way for the hot moist air created in basements and crawl spaces to vent up through the building and out through the roof?

Maintaining a building also means you have to pay close attention to the windows. Windows are the most common element where the HDC sees applications that may not be necessary. Nearly every week someone asks if they can replace their windows, many of them over fifty years old. There are varying answers to this, but lets tackle the real problem so that perhaps the answer does not have to be given. First, if you have a historic window, examine it to see if the sash is still plumb and rides up and down in the track. Take the window out and examine it for rot or bad patch jobs. Repairing a window with some window caulk only takes a few minutes of time and can save a window for years. Some do not like the idea of taking on this type of repair job, but I promise if you work at it slowly, it will save you time and money in the end. Those people who made those windows over a hundred years ago knew how to make them right. Secondly, examine the jambs to look for rot. Obviously, the outside is going to have a mild level of rot over time, especially if it was softwood and left unpainted. Look at the way the pulleys and weights sit in the window. If they are not functional, you may have to open up the casing to repair them. If you have gotten to a point where repair is necessary, it may be time to call in the professional help. The HDC office has access to this type of information if you are seeking it. Lastly, look over your windows to determine if the glass is worth saving. Glass is inherently a liquid. If you took a piece out, you may notice it is thicker on the bottom than the top. That means that thickness, and the wavy look, you see is actually the glass slowly sliding downward. If you cannot save the glass, there are replacement options, but please check in with the HDC before going too far.

Maintenance of the structure is also critical. While there is not a historic shingle to be found (although some clapboard might be) on the island, the frame or structure is elemental to the building. If the structure has been hacked at, cut into, and generally made a mess of, you most certainly want to think about shoring up the structure. However, all buildings suffer a bit over time and most have some sort of cut marks. (You can actually date a structure by the way the cut marks are on the timbers.) Examine the work to see if it damaging to the integrity of the building. If not, make a promise to preserve it. (The Nantucket Preservation Trust offers interior preservation easements that may be worth looking into.) It is critical that the structure be saved to ensure a proper continuity over time. All too often, we see projects come through that shows major demolition of historic structure. Remember the interior walls are structure too. If you take out a supporting wall inside the building, you may be asking for trouble when the floors start to squeak (which can be a sign of a sag).

Maintenance also means examining wiring, heating, and other services. Simple examination often indicates the status of the systems. One of my pet peeves, though, is the total removal of the historic elements. For example, while you will never find me advocating for the retention of "knob and tube" wiring, you should at least maintain some of it as an indicator that it was present at one time. Old heating ducts can become breeding grounds for pests and other critters, but if sealed off or at least properly documented, these can lead to great information about a house's history.

Maintenance can be an annoying inconvenience, especially for the nomadic lifestyles many of us lead today. However, keeping a watchful eye over our homes, both new and old, will make sure that all of us benefit from a better built environment. Plus if houses are maintained it means that those of us in preservation may not have to fight the battles we have to fight every day. I, for one, would not mind if I were out of a job (at least a little bit)!

Again, if you have questions about maintaining and restoring your home, please contact the Historic District Commission office. We would be thrilled to talk to you about what you can do to help protect your home.


On a side note, many of you who may have read these articles over the past summer may have heard about my dear dog Aussie, whom shared many of our experiences in Nantucket's open spaces - as well as lots of time in the car in America's less than thrilling places. She passed away after a tragic accident. The community here has poured out its heart to us and we wanted to make sure they were all acknowledged in turn. Nantucket's open spaces will never be quite the same again. Thank you Aussie for making those open spaces and trips all the better.