June 1, 2015

Conservation in Action: The African House Roof Restoration

  • More: HOPE Crew
  • By: Alicia Spence and Molly Dickerson

On Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, two culturally significant historic resources face a common problem: the deteriorating effects of time and Louisiana's often-oppressive climate. The treasures in question are the African House and the one-of-a-kind murals by folk artist Clementine Hunter contained within.

The African House, which was designated as a National Treasure by the National Trust, was built by enslaved Africans in the 1800s and was believed to have been used as a food pantry and storage facility for the plantation. This small, extremely rare outbuilding was configured in such a way that made it difficult to adapt for modern alternative uses.

Clementine Hunter’s murals depict early 20th century plantation life.

photo by: Library of Congress

View of the Clementine Hunter Murals.

Structurally, the 18-foot-by-21-foot log cabin had to support a roof nearly double its size. It doesn't take an engineering degree to make one raise an eyebrow at the gravity-defying eaves. By 2015 the African House roof had been in structural failure for decades. The shingles were 20 years overdue for replacement. “Temporary” supports held up the four corners of the eaves. Many structural pieces were rotted, severely distorted, or had snapped in half. The entire north side rafter system had slid down half a foot.

Before (Left, 2014) and After (Right, 2015) view of the exterior of African House. | Credit: Molly Dickerson Melrose Plantation Facility Manager

To bring the building back to its original form, many of its principal timbers would need to be repaired or replaced. The condition of the structure made for an inhospitable home for the elaborate Clementine Hunter murals that resided on the second floor of the building.

Folk artist Clementine Hunter created the murals in 1955 as a series of paintings inspired by her life on Melrose Plantation. The nine-panel installation represented some seven weeks of work by Hunter. But those seven weeks of effort produced a timeless vision of the life and culture of the Creole community along the Cane River in the early 20th century.

In 2014 the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches spearheaded a campaign to have the murals temporarily removed and conserved by the fine art conservators of Whitten & Proctor in Houston, Texas. The absence of the artwork provided the perfect opportunity for the Association, which owns and operates Melrose Plantation, to undertake the restoration the African House.

Section view of the North face African House Restoration. Click to view in a larger format. | Drawing by Alicia Spence

Modern computer analysis confirmed what the gut already knew: the roof system was under-built. To ensure the long-term durability of the restoration work, the crew would have to employ old and new restoration techniques, giving special consideration to the building's unique style and history. The project engineer, Sparks Engineering, prescribed reinforcing the eave plates and primary outside common rafters with liquid crystal polymer fiber guy wires. Stronger than wire rope, abrasion resistant, flexible, UV resistant, and easily spliced in the field, these six-millimeter lines were introduced to the roof to provide sorely needed structural support.

In preservation, best practice means using techniques and technology that span centuries. For example, the crew used both a water level and laser levels on the project. For fasteners, they employed hand-split pegs and space-age super rope. High speed computers and a 200-year-old pit saw were both put to work.

Much of the labor for this project came in the form of the National Trust's innovative program, the Hands-On Preservation Experience (HOPE) Crew.The mission of the program is to give young people solid, supervised field time to encourage preservation as a career path. Working with the Texas Conservation Corps and led by master timber framers and preservation experts from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, the HOPE Crew was introduced to safe roof practices, demolition, documentation and traditional timber framing tools.

New common rafter reinforced with 6mm Vectran12 braid low stretch line (vectran 12 data) and stainless steel anchor bolts. Only the bolt head will be visible. Photo credit: | Sarah Jackson, National Center for Preservation Technology and Training

Under the guidance of expert timber framers Alicia Spence and Gerry David, the crew produced all of the replacement timbers on site, using fresh cut Louisiana Cypress logs. This on-site approach made sense for two reasons. First, aesthetically, the building needed to be restored without altering its appearance. Second, few modern mills can cut the long-length material required for this project.

After eight weeks of intense work, the African House restoration was complete and will shortly be ready to welcome back its long-time tenants, the Clementine Hunter murals.

The African House HOPE Crew Team. | Photo credit: Jason Church, National Center for Preservation Technology and Training

In addition to preserving history and structures, the preservation trades also have a direct responsibility to preserve the trades themselves. This type of work is labor intensive. After all, pre-industrial construction is, by definition, powered by humans. Budgeting for work governed by heart rates instead of rpm’s means budgets and project management must be handled differently. The crew is the power plant, the link between the right tool and the right material. Achieving a level of efficiency requires optimizing the ability of the tradesperson. Using the HOPE Crew on preservation projects allows young preservationists to experience the connection, efficiency and force possible in human endeavor. As stewards of the built environment, introducing the next generation to both the academic and the practical is a preservationist’s responsibility—and privilege.

Alicia Spence has been timber-framing for more than 20 years with a body of work that spans new construction, restoration and reconstruction.

Molly Dickerson is a building preservationist serving as the facility manager at Melrose Plantation a National Landmark Site (owned and operated by the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches).

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By: Alicia Spence and Molly Dickerson

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