Melrose renovations take detour after uncovering damagePublished 12:03am Sunday, August 11, 2013
NATCHEZ — Much to Kathleen Jenkins’ disappointment, a “how-to” guide on repairing a 164-year-old antebellum mansion does not exist.
So when the National Park Service began a simple paint job at Melrose four years ago, the extensive water damage, crumbling column capitals and other needed repairs that were uncovered left park officials with a long list of repairs but no idea on how the work was to get done.
“We kind of needed to make this stuff up as we went along because it’s not like there’s a blueprint on how to fix Melrose,” said Jenkins, who is superintendent of the NPS. “There were significant repairs that we uncovered that had to be done that we weren’t anticipating because this all started as a project to recreate the exterior stucco.”
The house originally featured a painted finish where the stucco is now. The original project planned to return the existing stucco exterior to its original state, which was originally scored to resemble marble stone.
The project took a detour when crews began working to repair water damage that needed to be fixed before the painting restoration could begin.
Jenkins said she turned to a reliable preservation architect, Manuel Duran-Duran, who previously helped the NPS with work at the William Johnson House downtown, which is another property the park service administers.
“He was such a joy to work with and his knowledge of architecture and preservation is outstanding,” Jenkins said. “When we discovered we had that extensive moisture damage throughout the house, we knew we had to bring Manuel back in.”
Duran-Duran, who is originally from Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, has worked on several major restoration projects including Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, which went through a 16-month restoration in 2009.
Duran-Duran said the work currently being done at Melrose includes replacing several key beams that had significant water damage and bracing other support beams that are too important to the house’s frame to replace.
“This is a great historic landmark, so if there’s a way to preserve the original fabric in any way, we’re going to do that,” Duran-Duran said. “You have to evaluate the pros and cons of each decision before doing anything.”
Keeping the house safe for future visitors is also a factor when making restoration decisions, he said, pointing to a spot on the upper back gallery that connects to one of the house’s support columns.
The box gutters were original to the design of the house and were meant to direct water away from the house. However, the box gutters at Melrose were leaking and caused some moisture damage to the millwork on the house.
“This piece right here is really soggy from all the water coming down from the gutters,” Duran-Duran said. “If you think about 10 to 15 visitors out here on tour, that’s at least 1,000 pounds of weight right there on one spot.”
Other recent repairs to the house include replacing a fake chimney that was installed by the house’s original designer.
“The top of the chimney was solid so it was very top heavy and put a lot of pressure on the support wood below, which was starting to rot away,” Duran-Duran said. “We wanted to reuse the original bricks, but not all the pieces can be saved.”
The chimney will eventually be rebuilt with the original face of the bricks on the inside of the chimney, and stucco will be applied to the side of the brick facing outside to replicate the original look.
“If we were to try to take the stucco off the original side of the brick, it would ruin all of them,” Duran-Duran said. “We would rather keep the original brick and do it this way than do it another way.”
Duran-Duran said the project is just past the halfway marker and should be complete within a few months.
Having the house in the hands of Duran-Duran and his team reassures Jenkins that Melrose will be soon ready to greet visitors in its near original form.
“The mansion has been through a lot, but it helps me sleep at night knowing that it’s in such good hands,” she said. “I just hope it’ll be ready for another 150 years.”
The house is open for tours during the renovations.