Melrose, Louisiana — The month of April saw the completion of an 8-week project to restore the timber-framed roof of African House, a National Historic Landmark structure and named a National Trust for Historic Preservation National Treasure. The work was conducted by young people working through the National Trust’s HOPE Crew, guided by master timber framers and preservation experts from NCPTT.
The National Trust’s HOPE (“Hands-On Preservation Experience”) Crew initiative strives to train young people in preservation crafts while helping to protect historic cultural sites on public lands. African House, situated on the historic Melrose Plantation, was its first project at a non-profit-run site. The structure is an extremely rare example of African-influenced architecture in the United States. Constructed by enslaved Africans in the 1800s, the structure was believed to have been historically used as a food pantry and storage facility. African House is currently used to display murals painted by folk artist Clementine Hunter and is seen by more than 15,000 visitors to the plantation each year.
For decades, African House has been held in triage state of stabilization–strong structural loads inherent in the the large pyramidal roof design and the effects of weathering compromised the hand-hewn Cypress timbers that make up the frame. To stabilize the frame, shoring was installed under the four corners of the eaves. A tarp covered the rotten split-shake roofing until funds could raised for its restoration. Together, the stabilization efforts dramatically altered the historic appearance of the one-of-a-kind building.
NCPTT became involved in the project in 2013 when the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches, the non-profit that owns and operates the plantation, asked its staff to review a proposal to stabilize the roof by integrating a large steel structural supports. This raised several flags among NCPTT’s staff who suggested instead that a more sensitive approach utilizing traditional craft skills and, if necessary, hidden reinforcements could be employed.
Working with master timber framer Rudy Christian, preservationist Lisa Sasser, and preservation engineer Patrick Sparks, NCPTT staff organized and held a workshop and design charette to explore preservation alternatives for African House. Participants, which included some of the HOPE Crew members that would later work on the project, explored options that ranged the full gamut of preservation treatments. However, it was ultimately determined that the best course of action would be one of minimal intervention–replacing only failed structural timbers that were beyond repair, salvaging usable timbers with dutchman repairs, and retaining as much as possible of the building’s original fabric.
Work began in early February 2015, when a truck load of large Louisiana Cypress logs arrived on site. Timber framers Alicia Spence and Gerry David were brought in to teach and supervise the work of HOPE Crew members. The Crew soon got to work, hewing timbers, erecting a trestle for sawing, and carefully documenting and disassembling the roof. Every piece removed from the structure, including contemporary elements added during previous preservation efforts, was evaluated to determine if it could be salvaged. As Spence said, “every time we take out an old piece, we’re kind of scrubbing out some history and we try to be really conscious of that. We had to walk the line between preservation and restoration and unfortunately there’s a ton of gray, and we have to work in the gray and try to do whats best for the building.”
Ultimately, engineering models confirmed that no steel supports would be necessary and that the frame would largely support itself. The only reinforcing determined necessary was the discrete addition of super-strength Spectra wire across the peak of the roof and tying the flying roof fascia plates back to the timber walls. Modelling showed that this would alleviate the stresses that caused some of the structural member to fail in the past. The addition of a waterproofing membrane over the core of the structure was introduced to protect the valuable Clementine Hunter murals housed in the space.
With its characteristic roof repaired and back in place, African House is now well equipped for its next 200 years of history.