Commencing in November 2005, an extensive project is underway in “Aspet” the home of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The scope of the project includes installation of a “mist” type fire suppression system, upgraded fire detection, dehumidification in the basement, upgraded electric and heating systems. Because of the historic importance of the structure, the work must be done with great care in order to protect the original fabric of the building, as well as to ensure that the components are as unobtrusive as possible. The project will take place throughout the winter, spring and summer of 2006. The historic furnishings were carefully packed and stored, and the fragile wall coverings protected. Because the project is so comprehensive, the interior of Aspet is anticipated to be closed to the public during the entire the 2006 visitor season from May-October.
The job of Preservation
As a unit of the National Park Service, part of the mission of Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site is to preserve and interpret the home and surrounding landscape of sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. When undertaking a project like this in an historic structure, many questions are raised as how best to proceed.
In order to upgrade the building’s electrical system, where should wiring be run? Should we cut through the walls and remove historic material to install heating ducts or pipes? Will a sprinkler system negatively affect the appearance of the house? Will state and local historians and preservationists approve of the work? Most importantly, will the public accept the decisions which are made to protect the house? To ensure that the best choices were made, the New Hampshire State Preservation Officer and the National Park Service historic preservation advisors reviewed and analyzed the project before it could proceed.
Work done before the project could begin
The project could not take place without a great deal of advance work to prepare the house and its museum collection for the coming construction.
The project’s first phase started in October 2005, and took about two months to complete. The large collection of original furnishings had to be carefully cleaned and packed. Smaller objects were removed to collection storage, while barriers or special containers, were used to protect larger pieces from the dust generated by construction. The historic wall coverings of Japanese tatami matting had to be protected in place using plastic sheeting.
Packing of the collection represents a great deal of labor, but equally as laborious is the careful tracking and record-keeping associated with each museum object. Every object in a museum collection has a catalog number and anything that affects an object must be recorded on its catalog record. Throughout the entire packing process, strict accountability for the museum objects was maintained. Before moving anything, each object was photographed so that staff would be sure of its placement when the rooms were re-installed at the conclusion of the project. Additionally, every number was checked for accuracy against the catalog record and inventory sheets were prepared for the storage containers.
Working without Nails
Following the packing of the museum objects, a sophisticated set of barriers and protective structures were built by the park’s maintenance staff to shield walls, woodwork, door casings, and the large objects which will remain inside the house during construction.
Given space constraints, time limits and the amount of work to be accomplished, the job will be difficult enough, however all the work must be completed without putting nails into any historic walls. Dozens of friction devices hold the barriers securely in place without injuring walls or ceilings.
With completion of this phase of the work, contractors began the careful and very limited construction required to complete the installation of the new utilities.
Completion of the Project
With the completion of engineering plans, the phased work of installing new systems in the house began in November. The work and later reinstallation of the house is scheduled to take about 10 – 12 months. The project has three major phases which include the replacement of the heating and ventilation system, replacement and upgrading of the electrical components, and most importantly, the installation of a fire suppression system. Rather than using standard sprinklers, a “mist” system will be used. These types of sprinklers dispense a fine mist instead of a spray of water. The mist can suppress a fire with much less water then a conventional sprinkler, thus preventing the possibility of extensive water damage to the museum collections and the house.
Because of the complexity of the project, the house will be closed through the end of 2006. Images of the interior of Aspet and some of the museum objects are available for viewing at the visitor center.