In the context of most other countries, the United States is relatively young, of course. But living in New England, where Europeans settled here relatively early, we have access to a good deal of local history with regard to those settlers. Just up the road from Northampton sits the bucolic Historic Deerfield, “an authentic 18th Century Village” with a number of historic museum homes and demonstrations of colonial-era trades. There is an interesting restoration project currently in the works, of the historic Barnard Tavern in Old Deerfield. This piece in the Daily Hampshire Gazette tells the story of the restoration, and a bit about the tavern itself.
Layer by layer, piece by piece: Bringing a historic tavern back to life in Old Deerfield is painstaking work
For Bill Flynt, Historic Deerfield’s lead architectural conservator, exploring one of Old Deerfield’s 18th-century buildings is like stepping into a time machine. That’s the experience he aims to give the museum’s visitors, but many of the buildings have had multiple owners and restoring them to their original state takes a bit of archaeology.That’s where Flynt comes in, along with John Nawrocki and Ernie Zuraw, the museum’s two expert restoration carpenters.Since 2005, they’ve been working on the historic Barnard Tavern, which will eventually open as an exhibit to give visitors a sense of what it was like in the 1790s when it was one of the most prominent public houses along one of the main routes to Boston.The work is expected to take a few more years.To piece the restoration puzzle together, Flynt said he used historic documents, inventories, floor plans and dendrochronology — tree ring dating — as well as his own experience and knowledge of historic building construction practices and materials.Over the centuries, the tavern has changed hands multiple times and has gone through a series of renovations, all of which have involved removing or altering parts of the original layout.It was constructed in 1795 by Deerfield resident Salah Barnard as an addition to the Frary House, which he built as a home in the mid-18th century. The tavern was operated by Barnard’s son, Erastus, until around 1805, Flynt said. In 1797, the tavern’s ballroom was the site of the founding of Deerfield Academy, according to Phil Zea, Historic Deerfield’s president.In the 1860s, the tavern’s ownership changed frequently. It served as rental space, a store and as housing. Each of those uses required minor renovations. Flynt said the first major restoration was done when the tavern was purchased by C. Alice Baker in 1890. The 1950s brought another major restoration project under the auspices of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association.“It’s taken some time to sort all that out,” said Flynt. “It’s my job to pull it all apart and find out what goes with what period and put it all back the way it was.”Much of that sorting out required pulling down walls and masonry with crowbars to look for evidence of what changes were made and why. If a door looks out of place or the style doesn’t match the time period, Flynt will search through the museum’s property to find one that does.“In the ideal restoration, nothing’s been changed and you can just come in, clean up and paint,” said Flynt. “This one obviously takes a lot more work.”But, said Flynt, there will always be some questions that can’t be answered, such as what the original configuration of the bar in the tap room looked like, whether any of the walls were wallpapered, or exactly how the layout of the front hall has changed over the centuries.“That space appears to have been modified one or more times,” Flynt said.
Getting to work
Once Flynt has it all figured out, it’s time for Zuraw and Nawrocki to get to work.
“We’re trying to save as much of the original building as possible for future generations,” said Zuraw. “Wherever it’s possible, we try to use the same materials.”
Some of those materials — old forged nails, pieces of wood and chunks of plaster from the building’s entryway painted with red-and-pink floral designs — could be seen laid out on an impromptu table built from floorboards and sawhorses in one of the tavern’s dining rooms.
Much of the plaster in rooms throughout the building must be replaced. A walk through the tavern’s tap room reveals the process: the walls that have been finished are off-white and smooth, while the lathe — strips of wood nailed to the wall that act as an anchor for the plaster — is visible on the ones that have not.
According to Nawrocki, the entryway’s plaster will likely be restored using the same type and color of paint that would have been used originally. That work will be contracted out to a professional painter.
Upstairs, in the tavern’s cavernous ballroom, a similar process is under way. Flynt has scraped away parts of the wall trim to reveal a faux-marble paint scheme, which he said was probably done in the 1800s. The room’s original door, painted in the same style, leans against the back wall.
Flynt said he’s taken flake samples of the paint and sent them to a lab to be chemically analyzed. When the results come back, they’ll be used to guide a painter in replicating the scheme throughout the room.
“Sometimes you’ll take a wall that you thought had three layers of paint, but when you put it under a microscope you see that it’s actually got eight layers of paint and the first layer was something completely different than you expected,” Flynt said.
Mixing new and old
Some pieces of wood the carpenters are using have been taken from other buildings in Old Deerfield that were built during the same time period, Zuraw said. Not all of the work can be done with original materials, though. Some just hasn’t stood up to the test of time.
If it’s too far gone, Zuraw said, they use modern methods to recreate it. “We try to stick to what they would have used back then.”
Replacement work of that sort can be seen in the hallway connecting the kitchen to the tavern’s other rooms, where Nawrocki said extensive termite and carpenter ant damage forced them to replace some of the wide pine boards on the walls.
“There’re a lot of termites in the whole village,” Nawrocki said.
The new wood on the walls still has a fresh-cut smell and stands in stark contrast to the weathered floorboards, but Flynt said they’ll begin to take on a more uniform look over time as sunlight oxidizes them.
While the new wood will eventually blend in with the rest of the building, it will never be exactly the same, Nawrocki said. Many of the original boards were cut from old-growth trees, making them irreplaceable.
One of those boards — a solid 16-foot plank — serves as the seat of a wall bench that runs the length of the ballroom. Boards like that, said Nawrocki, are rare these days and most are found through word of mouth and networking with other carpenters.
Modern methods are often used, said Nawrocki, during repairs to the building’s framing. When the carpenters want to keep some of the old timbers, they add steel plates to strengthen the structure.
Not all of the renovation work is as much fun as reproducing period molding or door frames. Some of it is just downright dirty.
Nawrocki’s least favorite part is crawling through rat droppings and cobwebs while repairing the building’s frame.
“It’s not prime stuff,” he said, chuckling. “Most of the framing was that way.”
Zuraw said he’s also encountered fecal matter and dead critters while reinsulating the building.
“We find all sorts of things like that,” he said. “It’s no fun.”
Though they’ve both worked on other historic buildings in Old Deerfield, restoring the Barnard Tavern is the biggest project Zuraw and Nawrocki have undertaken there.
“They’ve worked on smaller wood roofing projects, window cap replication, cornice rebuilding, timber framing repairs, masonry repairs, molding replication and general restoration carpentry, but the Barnard Tavern is the only whole-house restoration we’ve tackled since either was hired,” Flynt said.
Learning the trade
Flynt began his career in preserving historic architecture after graduating from Williams College in 1975. He worked for a contractor who specialized in dismantling and re-erecting historic barns for a time, then went through the University of Vermont’s graduate program in Historic Preservation, after which he began working for Historic Deerfield.
Nawrocki, who lives in Ashfield, said his involvement in restoring old buildings started out of necessity; his own house was built in the 1880s and needed a lot of work.
“Buy an old house and you’ll learn how to do it pretty quickly,” he said.
A carpenter by trade, Nawrocki said many of the contractors he’s worked with over the years sent similar jobs his way.
“After a while, that’s all the work I was doing,” he said.
Nawrocki began learning young. His family was full of carpenters and woodworkers and he said he enjoyed watching them work as a child. Eventually, he, too, picked up the craft. After being self-employed for 30 years, he came to work for Historic Deerfield in 2001 and began working on the tavern in 2005.
Zuraw, who lives in Cummington, said following a brief stint as a truck driver, he became interested in preservation while working for various masonry companies.
“I was able to work on some of the oldest buildings in the county,” Zuraw said. During one of those jobs, he was lowered into the chimney of the Jethro Coffin House, Nantucket’s oldest building, on a chain ladder so he could repair the brick.
He eventually branched off and started a contracting business, which he owned for about 20 years. Then, the recent financial crisis made bidding for jobs difficult, so he took the restoration craftsman job at Historic Deerfield.
Flynt said he expects the interior renovations to pick up during the winter, but the project will probably take a few more years to complete. Since Zuraw and Nawrocki are the only two restoration carpenters on staff, they are frequently called to help with other projects. Exterior repairs take priority during the summer.
Once the Barnard Tavern is fully repaired, Flynt said it will be decorated with authentic furniture by the curatorial department and opened as a museum.
“We are aiming to have the tavern appear as it did during the 1796-1805 period when it was operating as a tavern.”
Tom Relihan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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