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Pioneer Spirit

An early-19th-century Georgian cottage in central Missouri is rescued by a contingent of local groups.

Project: Project: Thomas H. Hickman House, Franklin, MO

Architect: Susan Richards Johnson & Associates, Inc.; Angie Geist Gaebler, AIA, LEED AP, project architect

General Contractor: Five Oaks Associates, Centralia, MO

By Lynne Lavelle

In 1816, Thomas Hickman stopped his wagon on a hilltop two miles above the town of Franklin, MO, after traveling for weeks from Bourbon County, KY. He was greeted by little more than grasslands – the indigenous peoples were mostly wiped out or in hiding – but like other pioneers from the east, he had come to start afresh. By 1819 he had constructed a new 2,200-sq.ft., two-bedroom home in the Georgian-cottage style, which reflected his elevated status as partner in a hardware and dry goods store in downtown Franklin and greeted the growing influx of travelers along the Boonslick Trail. It was inhabited until the 1970s, after which it was used for farm storage.

Though there had been relatively few modern upgrades to the house in intervening years, by the time it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006 it was on the verge of irreparable deterioration. At that time, employees of the Center for Agroforestry within the University of Missouri's College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources – which has owned the 665-acre site since 1953 – began a campaign for its restoration. This effort was led by Dr. Gene Garrett, professor and former director of the Center for Agroforestry. "It is so unique within central Missouri to find a building of this age still standing," says Angie Gaebler, project architect and preservation architect at Susan Richards Johnson & Associates. "This is from the earliest part of Missouri's development – there's nothing here except for the beginning of the Santa Fe trail, and the Boonslick Trail, which this house is near. And this really shows the beginning of the westward expansion."

The house had a multitude of cosmetic and structural problems. At some point in the mid-20th century, the ceilings had been lowered in most of the rooms; the culprit had removed bricks from the walls in order to pocket ceiling joists at a lower level, resulting in extensive interior damage. The southwest parlor had later accommodated a kitchen and bathroom, with pipes forced through walls and floors. But the primary concern for the preservation team was the accelerating rate of deterioration. "The day was coming," says Gaebler. "The original lime-putty mortar was starting to deteriorate really quickly, and once that happens, you start losing bricks. They were starting to fall out in certain locations." An unwelcome resident made matters worse. "They had a groundhog that was living underneath the house," says Gaebler. "And because these floor joists are directly over dirt, the animals that get in there move the dirt right up against the bottom of the joists, which causes them to deteriorate. So the floors were rotting and sagging, and there was a lot of water infiltration."

To meet the project's demand for authentic, period-appropriate brick, more than 10,000 handmade bricks and limestone foundation stones were salvaged from a neighboring house, which dated from 1842 and had been demolished in the 1970s. "They were doing nothing, just sitting in the ground deteriorating," says Gaebler. Ray Glendening, farm supervisor with the Center for Agroforestry, oversaw the excavation of thousands of bricks from this house. The color was slightly different and they were a slightly different size, but they were a close enough match for us to use at this house." Once reconstructed, the masonry was re-pointed with custom-blended lime putty mortar, whose self-healing properties had helped preserve the original brick over the years. "When it gets damp it tends to expand and contract, which heals its own mini cracks," says Gaebler.

After securing the building envelope with new shingle roofing and hand-dug underpinning, the preservation team set to re-creating the lost elements of the house. Guided by the Historic American Buildings Survey photograph collection, archaeological work conducted by the university's art history and archaeology departments, as well as examples of local vernacular architecture, the firm reconstructed the kitchen house to the east side, complete with a cooking fireplace. They also reconstructed four chimneys and the decorative front door surround. During the course of the latter, the team made an unusual discovery. "The orientation of the house was changed at some point," says Gaebler. "Originally, it was built to face west – as it does now – but the town moved a couple of times due to water issues and a new road was put in, so they changed the orientation of the house. The front became the back and the back became the front. When we started on the project, the front door was not there – it was completely bricked in."

Among the biggest challenges for the preservation team were previous alterations to the window openings, which likely occurred in the mid-20th century. Save for a single window in the north elevation, most had been raised, and some had also been widened or narrowed. Fortunately, evidence of the original windows remained on the exterior walls, and there was enough salvaged brick to re-create the original openings. Reproduction wood windows and exterior doors made by L.K. Woodworking of St. Louis completed the exterior, which looks much as it did in 1819.

Most of the woodwork was not installed in the house, but trim, mantels, doors, jambs and even cupboards had been salvaged by Glendening and stored in a nearby trailer. "They have this huge warehouse, where they had laid it all out for me," says Gaebler. "We went through every piece and documented where it needed to go. It was a little like a detective story, and it was so interesting." The millwork and doors were restored and reinstalled. And in the end, only select pieces of trim one mantel were missing – "Who knows? I'm sure someone has it in their house somewhere," says Gabler. Analysis of the floors revealed local white oak, red oak, red elm, birch and walnut (all of the windows, sash, trim and doors were also walnut). All of the original log floor joists, many with bark intact, were braced and preserved with new central footings and the flooring was restored and patched with matching wood species.

The restoration was directed by general contractor Gary Dorr and his team from Five Oaks Associates. Michael M. Coldren Company of North East, MD, restored, re-created and supplied authentic historic hardware throughout the house; L.K. Woodworking of St. Louis, MO, aided in the restoration and reconstruction of the historic millwork; Brunner-Peters Heating & Air Conditioning of Columbia, MO, provided HVAC and a ground-source heat pump; and architectural conservator David Arbogast of Davenport, IA, consulted on period-appropriate paint colors and plastering, which were carried out by Rainbow Painting & Decorating of Jefferson City, MO.

The Kansas City, MO-based preservation team comprised Susan Richards Johnson & Associates, Structural Engineering Associates and Thompson Design Consultants. They were aided by Alan O'Bright, historical architect for the National Parks Service, local historian James Denny, and the University of Missouri – in particular doctorate student in architectural history Kate Kocyba, and volunteers from the university's archaeology and art history departments. Drawing on all available resources, the group was able to piece together the story of the house. "It was a very collaborative project," says Gaebler. "Kate Kocyba wrote what was basically an historic structures report – she and Ray Glendening did a lot of historic research and documented the whole process. And when we excavated each room to give a little more ventilation and had the dirt piled up outside, Kate and graduate student volunteers from the university sifted through all the dirt and found wonderful objects, some of which are on display in the house."

For many, the grand opening in October 2009 was the crowning achievement of decades of work, inquiry and hope. "This has been an effort that Dr. Garrett from the university had been trying to accomplish for more than 10 years," says Gaebler. "And before that, the house's importance was recognized by local historian James Denny – he was writing articles about it way back in the '70s." U.S. Senator Kit Bond, who was instrumental in securing funding for the restoration, was present for the grand opening. Also in attendance were Hickman family relatives and Berneice Odom, who had lived in the house as a child. "Mrs. Odom had given us several photographs that helped us immensely," says Gaebler. "They were from when she was a little girl and showed us what the house looked like, with her grandmother standing out front."

Today, the house is a museum and information center, open to the public and heavily used by the Boonslick and South Howard County historical societies. The restoration was funded through a Save America's Treasures Grant, a Community Development Block Grant through the town of Franklin, and private donations. "Everyone has just been so excited to see this happen," says Gaebler. "It's just a little house, but it means the world to so many people to see this preserved for future generations to understand how this area was settled."  

 

 

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