Read House Turns Restoration Project into Teaching Opportunity


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In 2007 the Delaware Historical Society was ecstatic to be awarded a $400,000 Save America’s Treasures grant for exterior preservation of the Read House, a 22-room Federal period mansion under our care. Altogether we raised more than $600,000 in matching funds to ensure that the project could be carried out.

The preservation project included repairs to the roof, masonry walls, gutters, flashing, and caulking, as well as more than 70 windows. Although a full scaffold encased two-thirds of the 14,000-square-foot structure, entrances and exits remained open. The project also included specific interior repairs to one room.

It was imperative to us that during the restoration work we continue to serve the grade-school teachers who bring more than 10,000 students to the site every year. In addition, the Historical Society wanted to interpret the process of preservation to walk-in visitors; college students in history, preservation, and material culture programs at the University of Delaware; and our neighbors in the National Historic Landmark district of New Castle, Del.

Fortunately, the architectural team we hired embraced our preservation and education ethic. They and the selected preservation contractors successfully planned the steps of the project to meet our needs, which often deviated from the standard phasing of a construction project. Careful planning of room usage for field trips, small subcontractor crews, and daily communication with the project manager and foreman ensured that work continued in and around select rooms of the house while students participated in hands-on programs in other rooms.

To avoid the prime season for school field trips, the preservation project was scheduled to begin in early summer 2009 and end at the close of the calendar year (although it actually took a few months longer). The house is also open to walk-in visitors from April through to December, and the contractors agreed to structure construction so that only a room or two in the house (out of the 11 spaces usually shown) would be closed to the public at any given time.

Finding a way to connect with the public became particularly important once the scaffold and a protective shroud of black netting obscured the Read House’s distinctive facade from view. To inform the public about the ongoing preservation process, daily construction log entries and photographs were used to create condensed weekly synopses of the preservation project, which were posted on the Delaware Historical Society’s blog and used by interpreters when conducting tours. As the project wrapped up, these synopses, construction documents from our archives, and archeological and architectural artifacts from the preservation project and 1980s restoration were used to create a small exhibit. The display introduced visitors to the importance of documenting a historic structure in planning for its continued care.

The removal of window sashes for off-site repair became the biggest obstacle to the normal function of our educational tours and programs. So that no interpreted room would be closed to the public for an extended period of time, carpenters removed window sashes room by room and carefully fitted protective inserts into their place while the sashes were repaired. To keep costs low, only one Plexiglas replacement sash was installed in each window of four primary rooms open for tours. Carpenters installed plywood in the other window openings in these rooms and in five other interpreted rooms for up to five months while sash repairs were made. Artificial lighting mitigated some of the darkness, but the importance of the windows as a light source and as a character-defining feature of the Read House was undeniable.

Although all facets of the preservation project were important, the staff and our contracted team decided historic windows should be a focus of our preservation education efforts, because of their direct effects on the project and public interest. We installed a to-scale photograph of the sashes of one of our kitchen windows on a plywood insert and diagrammed the basic parts of the window, from rails and stiles to panes and stool. Visitors also could investigate the weight pockets, as well as the detached weights and sash cords that enable the basic function of the window sashes.

To encourage preservation of historic windows, our team of architects and carpenters also presented two window preservation workshops during which sash removal and reinstallation were demonstrated and basic repairs, tools, and materials explained. Workshop participants included neighbors, weekend preservationists, and local preservation practitioners. The workshops were videotaped and future plans include posting edited segments through the collaborative New Castle Community History and Archaeology Program website.

In the end, Delaware Historical Society staff and the preservation crew worked together to ensure a superior visitor experience and preservation program during the 10-month exterior preservation of the Read House.