Artful Restoration

Todd Westrick's efforts to save a 1928 Cape Cod studio have consumed 12 years—and counting

Todd Westrick's house stands on a quiet street in Provincetown, Mass., only about 200 feet from Cape Cod Bay. Like many 19th-century buildings in the historic district here, the house is clad in shingles and capped by a cedar shake roof. But the classic exterior masks what is inside the 1928 home: beams salvaged from sailing ships, a timber-frame ceiling that soars to a height of 19 feet, antique wood dowels covering huge mechanical screws, and dramatically angled "ship's knees," pierced by rusted iron spikes, that anchor a cedar balustrade above the living room.

Westrick first saw the house that would become his home in 1998, when his friend Donard Engle invited him to visit. That trip was Westrick's introduction to Provincetown, and he instantly responded to the historic character of the Massachusetts town. But it was the house (he calls it the studio) that really got to him. Despite an exterior that Westrick remembers as rather shabby and unimpressive, the inside was "jaw dropping. It needed love and attention, it needed preservation," he says, "but it was utterly captivating. And I'm a sucker for a project."

An 1840 house that still stands on this property grew idiosyncratically over time; Donard Engle purchased the studio portion in 1990. He learned that the modest space had a distinguished history: Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), the legendary abstract expressionist artist and teacher, lived on the property for 25 years and taught classes in the studio from 1945 to 1958. Remarkably, photos and film clips of Hofmann show the 2,100-square-foot atelier exactly as it looks today, down to architectural details in the living room and a few select pieces of furniture.

Having learned about carpentry and restoration from his father, a builder, Westrick recognized that this house needed urgent repairs. He offered to help Engle and soon immersed himself in a project that has already consumed 12 years and will likely last a lifetime. "Given its age, the climate, the location by the sea, this house constantly needs repair. I have a long list ahead of me," says Westrick, who became co-owner of the house in 2007.

A professional landscape and architectural designer, Westrick subscribes to "a do-no-harm mentality: Do not destroy anything, and preserve as much as possible. I am a steward of this building, and I have a deep level of respect for it." His commitment to retaining its original form and character is unwavering, and his co-owner shares this philosophy. "We've been offered millions of dollars for the property but have no interest in selling," says Engle.

Tools of the Trade

During restoration of the studio, Todd Westrick used
several products he recommends without reservation:

Benjamin Moore paints: "I used Rustic Taupe from the Classic Color Collection for the trim. The color tones and quality are both great."

Makita Random Orbit Sander: "It's good for anything from removing old paint, to finishing boards—you name it. I've gone through three or four sanding wheels on this project."

FEIN MultiMaster: "This power tool has a multitude of blades, and it's been a godsend for repairs to flashing, cutting off nails, and getting under existing boards. My father turned me on to it."

Johns Manville R-19 Insulation: "Before I insulated, we couldn't keep the house open through the winter—the pipes had to be drained. With the insulation the house is extremely tight."

Westrick reuses or recyles components whenever the house needs repairs, and what he doesn't repair, he simply protects—including vivid paint splatters that date to Hofmann's period. As far as Westrick is concerned, "paint that remains from Hofmann's work is part of the history of the studio, and removing it would be unthinkable."

The challenges Westrick discovered inside the studio were daunting. He could find no evidence of modern insulation, the roof and windows leaked, and considerable water damage had occurred. "It was inevitable that if I didn't start working on it," Westrick says, "the house would most likely deteriorate beyond repair." He began in the autumn of 1998.

Enlisting the assistance of his father, "we jacked up the three-story structure to repair a deteriorating wall … We removed a rotted sill, cut out rotted framing, and added a new layer of block to raise the height of the existing foundation so that the new sill would be above grade. Then we added a new sill plate, married new framing to the old, set the house back down, and repaired the exterior shingles," he recalls. And that was only the beginning.

When they realized that a sagging floor near one of the two bedrooms had rendered the door to the room inoperable, Westrick jacked up the house again (this time for an entire winter), using large four-by-six beams and additional bracing to hold it securely in place. The following spring, a local artist and carpenter, hired because of his sensitivity to the historical and aesthetic character of the house, installed five new floor joists, as well as a major structural beam. Only then was the house lowered back down into place.

Within a few years, Westrick discovered that wood is not the only material that suffers in a marine environment; bricks and mortar are vulnerable to the salt air as well. In the autumn of 2001, Westrick's father and brother came to help him repair the brick hearth in front of the enormous living room fireplace. The mortar had crumbled, and the bricks themselves were sinking. Under the bricks they found a sand-filled wood trough. It had dried out and the boards had shrunk, but the sand still provided a bed on which the bricks of the hearth lay. After repairing the trough, the Westricks sealed it and lined it with heavy plastic sheeting. Then they replaced the old sand with new sand brought in from the beach and laid the old bricks back down before regrouting the joints. Todd's father says he'd never seen a trough of sand used this way before but believes the sand might have served as insulation. Todd posits that the sand "provided a flexible surface on which to lay bricks. The sand ensured they would all be level on top."

When it came to repairing the interior plank walls, Westrick liberated his family and did all the work himself. He pried off each board and numbered it, making certain he could return the planks to their original locations. Inside wall cavities he discovered desiccated seaweed—a common, inexpensive insulation in coastal communities. He replaced the seaweed with modern R-19 insulation, then recovered the wall cavities with a vapor barrier and tar paper. "Tar paper had originally separated the seaweed insulation from the planks, so I used it again to be faithful to the original construction method," he explains.  

One alarming problem that came to light during the wall excavations was the instability of the ship ribs and timbers that decorate many surfaces. The massive pieces of wood were unsecured, just staying in place out of habit. Westrick removed and reinstalled each piece with 3 1/2-inch stainless steel screws anchored in the framing. 

With the walls repaired, he sanded every plank and every ceiling. Westrick vividly remembers climbing around the studio wielding a random orbit sander, with a vacuum strapped to his back. He then washed every beam and plank of wood. Twice. His secret cleaning agent? Dishwashing detergent.

The list of tasks still ahead seems unending:  gutters, downspouts, additional insulation, glass replacement, and a solution for the still-unresolved lateral movement that threatens the studio window. (Westrick thinks he may install a steel T-bar to reinforce the delicate studio's signature feature.) That will all come in time.

Until then, Westrick realizes that his home demands both patience and acceptance. Nothing here is level or plumb, and he's content with that. He's so bewitched by this house and engaged in the restoration that it's truly become a labor of love. Last year he moved his practice from Ohio to Provincetown and now lives and works out of the studio full time.

Others may require a building program with a definite end date, but Westrick is comfortable addressing problems as they emerge and crafting his own solutions. "Being so imperfect is what makes this place perfect," he says. "I guess I am a pretty good fit here after all."

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