Lots of work, historical accuracy involved in refurbishing Downingtown Log House
● By J. Chambless
Wesley Sessa stands in front of the Downingtown Log House that his company restored in 1988-89.
By Natalie Smith
In the process of returning the
Downingtown Log House to a structure that would have fit quite
comfortably in the Chester County landscape 300 years ago, experts
were brought in.
“Our mission is historic preservation in the Delaware Valley, although we’ve sometimes gone father for important structures,” said Wesley Sessa of 18th Century Restorations, Inc., in Coventryville. Sessa and his team – which currently includes four specialized carpenters and two preservation masons – work diligently to coax the past out of a building’s old bones.
After the Log House was moved about 70 feet further into Kerr Park, in 1988, Sessa’s company started work on both the interior and exterior of the structure. In the little over a year the restoration took, the largest project involved replacing most of the logs on one side. Its previous location had damaged the building. The proximity to a car wash, a former paper mill and Lancaster Avenue all converged -- particularly at one wall of its structure.
“The location created a perfect storm for rot,” Sessa said. “First, it's the east side. So it would normally dry out with the rising sun, but the car wash blocked it. And the car wash produced steam and water and humidity. And there was a paper mill across the street, pumping out humidity. Then there was Route 30, that was sending cascades of water [after it rained] toward the front door of the building.” Street vibrations didn't help.
When it was determined that many of the building’s logs had to be replaced, the questions was where do you get just the proper, intact white oak? But when you’re in the historic preservation business, you learn to keep your eyes open.
“The challenge was finding white oak logs of a certain size that were dry enough,” Sessa said. But nature provided the solution. “We were lucky that we were not too far from the gypsy moth epidemic of the early ‘80s, which left a lot of standing dead trees. Those logs came up near French Creek State Park, in the [Hopewell] Big Woods.” Fortunately, with the use of some preservatives, some of the original logs were also saved.
Although the Log House’s construction date has not been specifically nailed down, Sessa agreed it was among the oldest buildings in Chester County. “Nails were still wrought -- hardware still had to be wrought,” Sessa said. “One of the key things here is that the building is of round logs, not hewn. The tree was cut, the bark was removed with a barking spud, because they did know if you did leave bark on a building, you would provide habitat for insects.
“But it's a round-logged building. What does that suggest? Certainly time. It suggests that each log had to be faced on the front or back, a day or half a day per log. It would be done with an adz, which looks like a garden hoe for wood. What you might have done is sawed every eight to 12 inches, then the adz would have shaved off little platters of wood. You can see hewn marks on logs that are left.” The logs were joined using the saddle notch method, as opposed to dovetail or peak-and-notch.
When Sessa and his team approach a restoration, respecting the character of the structure and its era encourages the use of both modern and historically inspired tools.
“To be expedient, we use power tools to get things started, but we used traditional tools -- not necessarily antique tools, but similar -- to fashion them, so no modern tool marks are left,” he said. “You have to cut a semi-circle at the bottom of the logs, and we used a chainsaw. But then we used the adz to sculpt it out. It’s like when you're making butternut squash and you have to get the seeds out.”
An architectural find in the Log House was a nook that came into view after a piece of plaster fell. The in-wall masonry shelf was 12-by-13-by-14 inches. “It could have been a place for a candle for light,” Sessa said. “It would have been surrounded on four sides at least by masonry.
“I've been in Chester County barns of later periods where they have these so the farmer could put in a lantern, I believe, or they could have been in a barn for curry comb or curry brushes for horses, but that wouldn't be these here. And who's to say it's not for your water pitcher?”
But the change that got the most immediate public reaction at the time was when the Log House was returned to its original whitewash exterior, the restorer said. People of the late 20th and early 21st centuries had been so used to seeing the natural logs show through on the house that some were disturbed by the change – and let Sessa’s team know it by yelling and gesturing out their car windows, he recalled with a laugh.
The whitewash – composed primarily of treated limestone – was used as a wood protectant and very commonly employed at the time. Traces of the lime wash were found in some of the logs, so 18th Century Restorations knew it called for a return to that color.
“I'd say from our experience of approximately 30 years of doing this, it's rare to find a log house that has residual whitewash,” Sessa said.
Depending on its treatment and other additives, the limestone can be made into lime paste or putty, lime wash or whitewash, mortar or pointing material.
As a former English teacher who moved into a historic house that needed repair, Sessa considers himself fortunate to have a necessity turn into a life’s work. “After I bought a house and couldn't afford to hire someone to fix it, I learned to fix it on my own,” he said. “An interest became a hobby, a hobby became a passion, a passion became a profession.
“But I still think this job I have allows me to periodically share and to tease out things other people know. There's certainly an academic sense to what I do, and certainly a thrill that comes from discovery. It's not that you never know what you're going to find, but every day you hope you learn something else.”
Natalie Smith may be contacted at DoubleSMedia@rocketmail.com.