Preservation by Prevention: Preserving the Irreplaceable 2

Consequences of Lapsed Maintenance (Part Two)

Sag_HarborPreventative maintenance is an essential element of property ownership. Historic properties, like all buildings, require regular monitoring and upkeep to remedy minor maintenance issues and to guard against significant, and costly, problems down the road. Delayed maintenance can quickly transform a minor issue into a major threat, requiring complete replacement of affected building elements. This poses a significant problem for historic buildings, which often feature superior materials that cannot be reproduced and craftsmanship that cannot be replicated. Modern reliance on mass production, and modernized construction and technology, eliminated many original products and has left few craftspeople with familiarity in historic construction techniques.

This newsletter is the second in a two-part series about irreplaceable elements of historic properties. Following last month’s focus on historic windows – this month we’ll concentrate on ironwork, masonry, historic paving materials and decorative details.

Fences, gates, railings, decorative window bars and other types of historic ironwork can be striking, character-defining features of historic properties. And maintaining these elements can be quite simple: as with historic wood windows, the most effective way to preserve and protect historic architectural cast and wrought iron is to maintain a protective coating of paint on the metal. But, if left unprotected, deterioration can be rapid. Rusting occurs quickly when iron is exposed to moisture and air, and once a film of rust has formed on the material, it attracts and traps additional moisture, which leads to further decay – a process that will continue until the iron is entirely corroded.

Deteriorated iron fencing

Deteriorated Iron Fencing

Once damaged beyond repair, iron elements can be replaced, but in-kind replication can be challenging. Today, the alloy commonly used and referred to as ‘wrought iron’ is actually mild steel, a primarily aluminum-based alloy. Mild steel, while not visually dissimilar from historic iron, especially when painted, is not as resistant to corrosion as either wrought or cast iron.

Iron Bootscraper

Iron Bootscraper

Real, pre-1920’s wrought iron is still available from some scrap yards, and matching replacement pieces can sometimes be obtained from specialty manufacturers. Local foundries may be able to custom cast smaller decorative iron elements, but large, complex pieces require skills and facilities available only at a larger foundry that specializes in replication –an extremely costly option that may be financially out-of-reach for the average property owner.

Replacing historic masonry presents another unique set of challenges. As with historic glass, masonry materials can be impossible to replicate due to changing technologies and the dwindling availability of materials and skilled masons.

Historic glazed architectural terra cotta – one of the most widely used building materials in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – was hand-made, resulting in a denser and more durable material than the machine-crafted terra cotta produced today. Modern terra cotta appears more uniform than its historic counterpart due to production techniques, as well as its thinner consistency, which creates a glazing that is thinner, more brittle, and lacking the richer, mottled coloration of the original.

Historic Brick and Modern Concrete Sidewalk

Historic Brick and Modern Concrete Sidewalk

As utilitarian as paving materials may seem, they contribute greatly to the feel of the sidewalks, entryways and overall character of the streetscape. Brick pavers come in myriad shapes, sizes, colors and textures, and many cannot be replaced in kind, simply because the plants that made produced the original pavers are no longer in operation. Recreating a new batch is possible, but the results are unlikely to be an exact match, even after several trial-and-error attempts. Bluestone pavers, a once popular sidewalk material, are now extremely difficult to locate, even in urban areas where they were once used extensively. And as with all historic stone, if the local quarry that produced the particular stone used in construction is no longer operational, it can be literally impossible to replace the feature in-kind.

In many historic neighborhoods, especially in densely populated northeastern cities, round holes in the sidewalk indicate the presence of coal chutes, once used to deliver coal from delivery trucks directly into the basement. While the chutes remain in many urban historic districts, their original cast-iron covers have been removed, and the holes are often patched or filled with concrete. These covers, designed and decorated in patterns specific to the foundry that produced them, were produced in small batches and limited quantities. It is literally impossible, in most cases, to replace these lids once they have been lost, stolen, or destroyed.

Cast Iron Water Meter Cover

Cast Iron Water Meter Cover

Decorative elements, of all manners and materials, can be difficult to replace due to changes in popular technology and the lack of working craftspeople skilled in the particular discipline. There are scores of tiny elements that contribute to the architectural character of a property but were produced and manufactured by merchants who have been out of business for over a century: decorative ornamental hardware has been removed from doors and shutters, the majority of iron boot scrapers removed from stoops and entryways, stone hitching posts and carriage mounting blocks rarely appear on sidewalks. Where they still exist, these charming, characteristic elements should be maintained and preserved.

If you own a historic property, there are simple steps you can take to prevent the loss of irreplaceable historic elements:

  1. Get acquainted with your building. Educate yourself about its unique features and idiosyncrasies. Contact your local preservation commission, historical society, or public library. These resources may be able to provide you with information on the architect, architectural style, building materials, and other unique characteristics of your buildings. Familiarize yourself with and document interesting or notable features like stained or leaded glass, unusual window mullions, decorative stone or iron work, building materials or masonry treatments. Learning about your historic property is a valuable way to increase your appreciation of the history of the property, and connects you to the history of your building, neighborhood, and community.
  2. Inspect your property: take a close look at your building once or twice a year (the springtime is recommended). Make note of any elements that look like they may be deteriorating, or susceptible to damage in the near future so you can monitor any changes and address problems as they arise. Check for peeling paint, blocked gutters, rusting ironwork, mold or mildew accumulation, and chipped or spalling masonry.
  3. Maintain! Minor maintenance can make a world of difference. Remove accumulated areas of dust, soot, insect cocoons, or cobwebs. Cut back any overgrown vine, which can damage the masonry as well as the façade. Clear blocked gutters and downspouts to make sure drainage is adequate, and cut back any overgrown shade trees or shrubbery to ensure that sunlight is striking the building. Eliminating opportunities for moisture accumulation and water damage will significantly reduce later maintenance costs. 

If the damage is significant, and total replacement is the only treatment option, thoroughly document the ‘before’ conditions of the building to preserve the feature in photographs. Then, see what opportunities may exist for in-kind replacement. This is another area where local preservation groups and historical societies can be an extremely valuable resource.

Architectural salvages provide a viable option, especially in replacement stone or paving materials. ‘Reclaimed’ brick and stone suppliers maybe able to provide materials that most closely resemble the original element.

Historic masonry professionals are another excellent resource for locating historic building materials and, if original materials are not available, the best resource for recreating the damaged feature. Local historic commissions, preservation commissions may be able to provide a list of these professionals in your area.

Maintaining your historic property, preserves the social, cultural, and architectural history of a building, as well as the community in which it exists, and is vital in sustaining the link between the past and the present that historic preservation endeavors to maintain.