Aaron Caine has a new appreciation for the old white clapboard cottage a stone’s throw from the stately Belmont mansion in Stafford County.
“I can’t believe I never noticed this house,” said Caine, a senior historic preservation major at the University of Mary Washington who grew up in the area. “I’ve driven by here many times and never realized that it was here.”
Assistant Professor Michael Spencer understands the oversight. The tenant house is dwarfed by Belmont, the impressive Georgian estate on the hillside once owned by 19th century artist Gari Melchers. Very little archival information is available about the Falmouth cottage referred to in historical documents only as “the house across the road.”
The building, which is part of the Melchers estate administered by UMW, makes an ideal study for Caine and the seven students in Spencer’s “building forensics” class who have spent the semester building on previous research and documentation skills, honing old and new techniques essential in evaluating the historical character of a structure.
Spencer and his charges spent a recent afternoon poring over the bones of the old cottage. They took turns using state-of-the-art “time of flight” testers and resistance drills to examine the stability of wooden beams in the basement floor and interior ceilings. They peered through small openings in exterior walls and rafters using a borescope, a small fiber-optic camera, to check for signs of deterioration and used data loggers and hygrometers to test the relative humidity and temperature control on the main floor. They examined building studs hidden behind plaster walls using an infrared thermography camera.
Spencer, a 2003 alumnus, is a product of UMW’s highly respected historic preservation program. Founded in 1984, the department is one of the oldest in the country and is one of only 10 institutions in the U.S. that offers an undergraduate degree in historic preservation.
Working on-site using the latest equipment is important for his students who seek careers in historic preservation associated with architectural conservation, Spencer said. UMW’s preservation program has one of the largest inventories of non-destructive and minimally invasive equipment in the country, relating to the field of architectural conservation, he said.
“Students can see the physical aspects of what they are evaluating,” said Spencer. “What do the saw marks mean? What do the nail marks they are seeing mean? What does that say about the structure? What does that say about the people who lived there? What does it say about the period?”
This minimally invasive technology aids preservationists in assessing the condition of a structure without further damage. The collected data can guide the client in the most cost effective and sensitive approach to restoration, Spencer said.
“We apply those in-depth techniques to evaluate historic structures to see how they are put together and how they developed over time,” said Spencer. “This equipment helps facilitate how we go about analyzing the structure in terms of condition assessment, ultimately leading to a document that can be presented to a client to be used to guide them in future restoration efforts.”
The client, in this case, is Beate Jensen, Belmont’s site preservation manager, who accompanied the class on the site visit to the cottage. She will receive a final report from the class at the end of the semester. A 1999 graduate of UMW’s historic preservation program, Jensen is appreciative of Spencer’s class examination of the structure. She has long suspected that the cottage was built in the mid-1800s, perhaps serving as slave quarters and a tenant house, but she hasn’t been able to adequately examine the historical fabric of the building.
“I’ve always wanted to document the building, so it’s nice to have someone from the outside to investigate the building without having a vested interest,” said Jensen. “This structure is a perfect match for Michael’s building forensics class.”
Jensen has worked with the class throughout the semester, helping them sift through historical information available about the cottage. She is ecstatic at watching the student findings.
“I love how the students think,” said Jensen. “I love that they are going through the same discovery process that I went through when I was a student. I enjoy seeing their ‘aha’ moments.”
One such moment came as Spencer directed them to a corner of the attic where looking through an infrared camera they noticed changes in the roofline where the roof had been raised, and “cripples” on the first floor that indicated where previous doors and windows have been. In another corner of the attic, students discovered a dark line visible where a second stairway had been, leading them to suspect the structure may have been occupied by several families at a time.
Their suspicions were confirmed several weeks later by 19th century Civil War documents the class discovered that reported damage by Confederate soldiers who took lumber, weatherboard siding and stairways from the house, referred to as the “double dwelling house in the town of Falmouth.”
“One of my jobs is to make students see how useful science is and how it can be presented to the client,” said Spencer. “It’s one thing to say we want to preserve a building because we like it, it’s another to say we should preserve it because it’s the most cost effective thing to do. It’s an economic and environmentally sustainable way that has much more meat and bones. That’s ultimately what happens. If you give someone factual data then you can bolster that argument.”
Senior Leslie Bird was captivated by the class’ in-depth examination of the tenant cottage that has been largely overlooked.
“There’s so much insight to gain researching this structure,” she said. “There are so many stories hidden in these walls.”
Photos taken by Kimmie Barkley ’14