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Safeguarding Sagamore Hill indoor artifacts

The restoration of Sagamore Hill after the historic

The restoration of Sagamore Hill after the historic site was closed involved the removal of books, most furniture and artifacts, and all but a few animal-head trophies too fragile to relocate. (June 27, 2012) Credit: Chris Ware

Who do you call when contractors are coming and you have to protect historic mantels and animal head trophies from errant hammers or runaway scaffolding?

For the staff at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site in Cove Neck, there is just one person: Jeff Finch.

The regional National Park Service historic building specialist spends most of his time doing restoration carpentry or stone masonry projects. But it's his niche expertise of installing protective walls and flooring in historic buildings undergoing restoration work that made him indispensable to Sagamore Hill.

Finch, 55, who has been a historic building specialist for 13 years, single-handedly designed and installed the system of false walls and other coverings to protect all the built-in features of former President Theodore Roosevelt's 22-room Victorian, which closed in December for a $6.2-million restoration.

Besides covering walls, staircases and bookcases, Finch also devised the protection for a third-floor armoire, the only piece of furniture not removed — it was too big to move because it did not come apart — and animal head trophies considered too fragile to disturb.

"Jeff's work is invaluable," said Susan Sarna, the museum specialist overseeing the inventory and removal effort at the house. She said Finch studied the restoration plans and figured out where the contractors would need access and would be most active, a process that allowed him to build his protection system accordingly. "There's no way we could hire a contractor to do that because he has the knowledge and experience," Sarna added.

And, she noted, "he never uses any nails or puts holes in anything."

 

No nails, careful fastening

Finch has already worked for nine weeks protecting Sagamore Hill and will return for another one to two weeks to complete the job, protecting the house's grandest space, the North Room, which TR added after the initial construction, once a problem with peeling wallpaper is resolved.

Finch began by meeting with the staff in late fall before the house was emptied of almost every object — 8,000 books and 6,000 other artifacts, from TR's Spanish-American War Rough Riders hat and saber to a rhinoceros foot inkwell.

The original plan was to not remove any of the 23 animal head trophies because of their fragility, Sarna said. But after Finch said they all could not be protected without impeding contractors' movements, all but four were moved into storage. He will build raised shelters for the two bison and two elk in the North Room that will allow contractors access to the ventilation ducts beneath them.

Finch, who is based at the Park Service's regional office in Philadelphia, said he began to develop his historic house protection system when he worked with the staff at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Vermont in 2002. He said their system was based on using two-by-four lumber as a starting point but he decided it would be easier, faster and lighter to start out with thin furring strips that could be covered with quarter-inch plywood. He perfected the system at Martin Van Buren National Historic Site upstate between 2004 and 2006 and Morristown National Historical Park in New Jersey three years ago.

Besides the furring strips and plywood, Finch's ingredients are sheets of thin plastic foam, cardboard tubes, plastic sheeting and special plastic flooring.

"It's all done with friction and gravity," he said, with an occasional assist from a roll of blue painter's tape.

To cover a wall or a large piece of furniture, he will fit the furring strips, with their ends covered in foam sheeting, from floor to ceiling about 2 feet apart and cut them to fit snugly without using screws or nails. Then the strips are covered with thin plywood and plastic sheeting.

"Every individual piece can be different" in how it needs to be protected, Finch said. "You don't want to screw into anything. You don't want to put duct tape against any historic fabric."

When tape is required, Finch uses painter's tape and then puts the stronger duct tape over it.

 

Gorilla-proof protection

When planning his approach, Finch said he considers the object and what kind of work is going to be happening around the piece. Pointing to a mantel in the Drawing Room, Finch said, "There's not a lot of work that's going to go on around this," so it needs minimal protection. "Whereas the stairway, people could knock into."

So it received the heaviest protection because it will be used by the contractors and work will be going on around it.

In all of his time at Sagamore Hill, Finch worked solo, except for when he needed help moving a cabinet. He noted that no house he has protected has ever been damaged during construction.

"I try to build for the gorilla contractor," Finch said, "and fortunately the gorilla contractor has never showed up."


What is being restored

The $6.2-million roof-to-basement restoration of Sagamore Hill is the most extensive since the home was built in 1885. Contractors are scheduled to begin work in August and complete the overhaul in early 2014, allowing the house to reopen that summer or fall. The work includes:

-- Rewiring the entire house and upgrading the lighting;

-- Installing a new heating and ventilation system, upgraded fire detection and sprinklers, and security systems;

-- Installing a new roof, gutter and drainage system, foundation repairs and waterproofing, rehabilitation of historic windows, shutters, doors, siding and porches;

-- Restoring the original rear porch and skylit central light well, both altered or removed in the past;

-- Installing a ramp to provide disabled visitors to access the porch and first floor of the home;

-- Rehabilitation of the adjacent ice house, removing the 1950s-era restrooms and installation of emergency generators.

 

To-do list

The $6.2-million roof-to-basement restoration of Sagamore Hill is the most extensive since the home was built in 1885. Contractors are scheduled to begin work in August and complete the overhaul in early 2014, allowing the house to reopen that summer or fall. The work includes:

-- Rewiring the entire house and upgrading the lighting;

-- Installing a new heating and ventilation system, upgraded fire detection and sprinklers, and security systems;

-- Installing a new roof, gutter and drainage system, foundation repairs and waterproofing, rehabilitation of historic windows, shutters, doors, siding and porches;

-- Restoring the original rear porch and skylit central light well, both altered or removed in the past;

-- Installing a ramp to provide disabled visitors to access the porch and first floor of the home;

-- Rehabilitation of the adjacent ice house, removing the 1950s-era restrooms and installation of emergency generators.

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