Reflecting on HOPE Crew at Grand Teton National Park
For four weeks, I woke up before the sun in a tent in Grand Teton National Park. I made myself an egg-and-cheese bagel sandwich in a cast-iron over a camp stove. As the world began to get light, my fellow Rocky Mountain Youth Corps: Colorado members and I pulled away in our Suburban—James Taylor blaring from the speakers—to make the half-hour commute to Jenny Lake Visitor Center, where we were working under the leadership of the Western Center for Historic Preservation.
The Jenny Lake Visitor Center project was a new experience with HOPE Crew, since it was the first time I’d worked on a construction project indoors instead of outdoors. The Visitor Center was formerly the studio of Harrison Crandall, a photographer and painter who lived and worked on the shores of Jenny Lake in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Even after he moved his family and his business operation, his studio remained. However, the park moved the structure to the other side of the lake and transformed it into the Visitor Center. Now, it is on the National Register of Historic Places—which is where we come in.
The building had undergone changes before my crew even arrived at Grand Teton. Earlier this year, work was done on the roof, the porch, and the cupola (a small dome adorning the roof). The cupola was especially important to Harrison Crandall, who wanted the light not only to paint and see his subjects by, but also to showcase finished art and photography. It's an essential part of the building and one of its most special features.
Another special feature, and quite unique for the region at the time, was the detail in the ceiling work. The entire ceiling in the main room is laid out in columnal panels. Within the panels are systems of diagonally laid sticks, or latillas. The angle of the sticks alternates from panel to panel, creating a very pleasant "chevron" effect. Our main job was to remove the latillas, clean and oil them, and replace them in the ceiling.
This work might sound like a breeze, but there were several difficulties and minute details to the project. First of all, while it may not seem to matter, each latilla is historically important to the integrity of the building, so it's actually imperative that each latilla be returned to exactly the same place that it came from. We labelled and numbered each latilla with Sharpie on painter's tape before we removed them from each panel (12 on each side of the roof, so 24 panels overall). They were then handed down to the members waiting on the ground to maintain them.
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Each latilla was wiped down with a rag soaked in water and linseed soap. Then it was painted with a liberal coating of linseed oil, a substance which, in its natural form, is a wonderful wood preservative. When the entire panel worth of latillas was done, they would dry until the people on the ceiling were ready to secure them to their rightful place. All in all, between 1,900 and 2,200 latillas underwent this procedure.
Another difficulty was the securing process. Originally, the latillas weren't secured in the panels; however, after several instances over the years of latillas loosing themselves and falling to the ground below, it was decided for the safety of the patrons to secure them with tacking nails. On top of the difficulties with putting the latillas in the right order and manipulating them so they laid right, the nail gunner had to put nails in the right places, so the latillas were effectively secured but also looked good with the rest of the ornamentation—not to mention that each nail needed to be placed out of site to avoid destroying the aesthetic effect. And overall, we had to take safety into account while preserving the aesthetic and historic significance of this detail work.
That concept, balancing what works with what was, is fairly omnipresent in this field. It's different from normal carpentry or labor work because the default isn't “What's the best option, method, or material out there?” It's a constant give-and-take of compromises between what was conventional at the time and what we now realize works better.
My job was to understand why I was doing the things I was doing and using the materials I was using, so that the work I did resembled its former glory as closely as possible. In fact, resemblance is good, but rejuvenation is better: Using the original materials as much as possible after maintaining them, so they can last another hundred years.
Isn't that an arresting thought? That the logs I leaned on while wielding a linseed-oil paintbrush are the same logs that Harrison Crandall and his friends and neighbors stacked almost 100 years ago. The latillas I was coating are the same latillas that he picked out, cut down to size, placed, and stood on the floor admiring. The windows through which I watched several snow flurries are the same ones through which he saw his world.
The building I spent a month working in has been standing for almost a century. It's been countless things to countless people—not only Crandall and his family, but every patron that's ever stepped through that heavy wooden door.
I never could have foreseen that the project that provided the least physical work of any project I've completed would be the one that changed me. A lot of times, the physical struggle is part of what leaves an impression on me, from my body to my mind. This project involved no hiking, very little lifting of heavy objects, and minimal tool swinging. Rather than getting my attention through my muscles, it appealed to my brain. More than that—my heart, my soul. It told me the things I just wrote here.
The Jenny Lake Visitor Center was just one part of an active construction site for the duration of the time we worked there; the entire Jenny Lake area was undergoing a massive overhaul. While we worked on the Visitor Center, we had the chance to meet more experienced crafters and learn about other processes involved in the project.
One crafter—Richard, in charge of the Dry Stone Conservancy masonry crew—impressed upon us that young people need to first get interested, then get involved in this line of work. Almost every niche in the labor field is hurting for young hands and minds.
As the average age for a labor artisan grows, the window of opportunity for them to teach their skills to someone younger shrinks. I was honored to feel like I was doing my part in learning these incredible skills.
I can't wait to come back in 10 years, or 25, or 50. I can't wait to look up at the ceiling and see the work that I did, to point it out to my companions and probably everyone else who happens to be inside the visitor's center at the time. That moment will be one of the proudest of my life.