Giving mansion its grandeur again Three decades after Bicentennial, more repairs.

Posted: August 21, 2005

If you were around Philadelphia during the nation's Bicentennial celebration, you probably remember that the city did a bit of sprucing up.

To put it mildly.

Whole museums were built, new streetscapes were conceived, and buildings were cleaned and repaired - all in the interests of the city's celebratory ambitions.

But now, 30 years later, much of that building and repairing is falling apart at once. Roofs are leaking. Joists are creaking. Frames are rotting.

Nowhere is this more painfully apparent than in the historic houses in Fairmount Park, where major repairs are under way or are in the works to shore up or effectively undo the decaying Bicentennial efforts.

At Mount Pleasant - the graceful Georgian complex overlooking the Schuylkill that is administered by the Philadelphia Museum of Art - one of the most intricate and dramatic restorations ever undertaken in the park is about half complete.

It's a project that has literally raised the roof.

"The house is completely entombed in scaffolding," said David G. deMuzio, the museum's senior conservator of furniture and woodwork, who is overseeing the project. "In the end, we'll be restoring the entire roof structure."

This project, which will cost between $1 million and $2 million, involved installing a "whole grid work of steel" to support the roof while the rotted ends of 250-year-old beams could be removed and replaced.

That complex work has been undertaken beneath a tentlike plastic temporary roof that sheaths the entire upper portion of the house. To stand on the roof of Mount Pleasant now is akin to standing within a giant white circus tent surrounded by a maze of catwalks and jungle-gym scaffolding.

When the rotted joists and other structural elements are replaced, lattice will be installed and enormous cedar shingles will be laid down.

"Getting the temporary steel in the building and shoring everything up was a tremendous effort," said deMuzio. "There was rot at the cornice that needed in-kind replacement. I had to bring in trees and have them custom sawn."

The trees - tulip poplar, like the house's originals - were cut in Lancaster County and trucked to New York for special kiln drying before being brought to Fairmount Park.

All of the work and materials comport as closely as possible with what archival research has shown to be original. But when the house was renovated for the Bicentennial, such painstaking reconstruction was not undertaken.

A solid board roof was installed at the time with shingles laid directly on top of it - a quick fix, but a recipe for rot.

The new shingles - roughly 10,000 of them - will be laid atop new open lath, which should afford decades of life.

"A fair amount of what we've done is to repair what was done in 1975," said deMuzio. "They did what they did then; 30 years later we do things differently. Over time, architectural conservation has become more serious and conservative. There's more time spent fussing and doing the best we can to preserve original material."

The work at Mount Pleasant, which was constructed between 1762 and 1765 by John Macpherson, who made a fortune as a privateer, is taking place under the purview of the Art Museum and should be finished next spring. The house is located above Kelly Drive off Mount Pleasant Drive.

But coping with most of the deteriorating houses in the park falls largely on financially strapped Fairmount Park.

Despite its money difficulties, the park is slowly working its way through repairs, distributing limited capital dollars where the need is most pressing.

"We've actually been whittling away at the problems," said Stephanie Craighead, the park's deputy director for planning. New roofs, new mechanical systems, new staircases - you name it - are all being installed or are about to be installed at park houses.

Sweetbriar, built in 1797 by Samuel and Jean Breck overlooking the west bank of the Schuylkill, is getting a new roof and new heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems. Strawberry Mansion, on the east side of the river on Strawberry Mansion Drive, will also be getting a new roof to replace the Bicentennial roof, plus new mechanical systems.

Lemon Hill, at Sedgley and Lemon Hill Drives, needs electrical systems; its operators, the Colonial Dames of America, have already performed extensive structural repairs on the 1790 house stair.

Woodford, repaired after a devastating fire two years ago, still needs new mechanical systems. And Belmont Mansion in the west park needs "everything from soup to nuts," said Craighead.

Virtually all of this work is necessitated by Bicentennial renovations reaching the end of their effective (or not so effective) existence.

Belmont alone will cost about $3.2 million, Craighead said. Other historic houses in the park will run about $1.2 million altogether.

But the park must also repair other decaying Bicentennial projects around the city. Total capital outlays for these will be about $12 million, Craighead said. In many instances, those dollars will be augmented by friends groups and tenants who raise funds on their own for specific projects.

"It's good there are some resources out there, even though the capital budget is coming under more constraints," said Mark Focht, acting park director. "But we're working through the important things."

Contact staff writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com.

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