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French Vintage

PROJECT
Fort Ticonderoga, Adirondack Mountains, NY

ARCHITECT
Tonetti Associates Architects, New York, NY; Andrew B. Wright, AIA, LEED AP, partner Providence, RI

By Nancy A. Ruhling

For nearly three centuries, Fort Ticonderoga, which played a pivotal role in the Seven Years' War and the Revolutionary War, has stood the test of time. Aside from alterations and restorations in 1909 and the 1920s, the general appearance of the fort, in New York State's Adirondack Mountains, reflects the 1750s, when it was built by the French in their quest to colonize the new world.

When the fort, a museum that is a National Historic Landmark, decided to expand, it wanted to do so without altering the authentic character of the setting. Fortunately, history provided a perfect place for the $15-million, 15,000-sq.ft. Mars Education Center. In 1759, when the British overtook the fort, the French blew up its gunpowder magazine as they retreated. That site, on the east side of the parade ground, was never restored.

It was in that long-fallow space that Architect Andrew B. Wright, AIA, LEED AP, a partner in New York City-based Tonetti Associates Architects and his staff, led by Anne-Sophie Restoux and Kirsten Youngren, reconstructed el magazin du Roi and returned the fort's skyline to its 18th-century form. Their team also included engineers Philip C. Steiner, principal of AltieriSeborWieber in Norwalk, CT, and Christopher A. Lesher, senior associate at Ryan-Biggs Associates of Troy, NY, and general contractor Breadloaf Corp. of Middlebury, VT.

"We were able to stay within the original footprint even though this building is twice the size of the original because, for protection, the original magazine was filled with earth that absorbed incoming fire," says Wright. "We used some of that space to create a larger building."

Although the British had imposed their own style on the two remaining buildings in a star-shaped fort when they conquered it in 1759 and a British architect led the 20th-century preservation projects, the design team and the museum decided to follow French style for the new building. "We wanted a structure that looked like the original," Wright says. "For the French, forts were as much a symbol of the king's presence as they were of military might. The British forts were more straightforward and not as ornate."

Re-creating the original appearance required extensive detective work. A vintage drawing of the fort was discovered at the New York Historical Society, and more information was gleaned from fort diaries and two archeological excavations of the site. One excavation uncovered a rare 18th-century gun platform; because it was too fragile to be moved, the building's design was changed to accommodate it. Another excavation turned up a working stone-lined French drain that was incorporated into the final design.

"We also conducted extensive research in Canada and France as well as the United States to get the right building elevation," Wright says. "Our final design reflects the best current knowledge of French colonial fort architecture."

The ideas were vetted by what Wright calls a "brain trust," a panel of leading North American historians, architectural historians, preservationists and archeologists. "These people had the right knowledge and background to affirm that we were on the right track," Wright says.

The Mars Education Center, which has an oak-shingle roof, bell-cast eaves and red ochre wood trim, is made from the same local stone as the original. The stone was hand-split into 10-inch-thick blocks on site by craftspeople from Northeast Masonry in Bow, NH, who were supervised by a master French-Canadian mason. "We even replicated the original lime-based mortar," Wright says.

The door planks were hand-planed and left rough, as they would have been in the 1750s, and the door hardware was custom forged by blacksmith William Senseney of Williamstown, MA. "The fleurs-de-lis decorative thumb guards signify the extent of the power of the king," Wright says. "Similar pieces, excavated from the site, are in the fort's collection."

The French-style casement windows, custom-crafted by Stark Mountain Woodworking of New Haven, VT, are a prime example of the design team's attention to historic precedent. "We had to determine whether the building originally had glazed windows or oil paper," Wright says. "According to fort diaries, it was, indeed, glass. We couldn't use double-paned glass because that wouldn't be historically accurate. We had to go with single panes to avoid condensation; we added air ducts that blow across the glass."

In configuring the rooms, the design team created a smooth-flowing layout that melds 18th-century design criteria and 21st-century requirements. The South East Bastion, originally a subterranean powder magazine protected by heavy walls, was transformed into a multi-purpose hall that can hold up to 200 people for seminars. The East Terreplein became as space that connects all levels of the building via circulation areas and public rooms. And the basement was turned into an exhibit space with a museum-quality environment. The classrooms, which include one with a fireplace that is used for open-hearth cooking demonstrations, are within the original footprint of the building on the upper levels.

"There were some compromises with history that we had to make, but there weren't many," Wright says. "The whole building had to be handicapped-accessible, of course, and we had to bow to 21st-century amenities. A prime example of this is the stairway that leads down to the bread ovens; originally, the bakers used a ladder to get there."

Wright's firm linked interior and exterior spaces through common materials. In the Great Room, for instance, the sides of the staircase are supported by columns of the same stone as that used on the facade. In the same room, the walls are paneled in various woods, creating an architectural outline of the fort. "We tried to use 18th-century materials in 21st-century ways," he says. "The original interior finishes would have been rough and simple. We chose clean white plaster walls to showcase exhibits."

The Mars Center team tapped local sources and sought out low-VOC materials. The building runs on a geothermal heating/air conditioning system powered by three 1,000-ft.-deep wells on the property; LEED certification has been applied for.

The Great Room's sustainable cork flooring brings past and present together with a toned down design that outlines the original powder magazines: The light cork represents the powder; the dark delineates the masonry walls around it.

"LEED is not easy to get for museum environments because such institutions require mechanical systems of constant humidity and temperature, and these are, by nature, not energy efficient," Wright says. "But the fort has a long history of land stewardship, so it made sense to do it." Wright credits the success of the project to the strict adherence to history and the collaboration of the design and museum teams. "The Mars Education Center does exactly what it is designed to do," he says. "It provides an 'aha' moment when people enter the parade ground. And it gives an added layer of complexity and history."

 

 

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