Venturing: The past, revealed

Posted Wednesday, May 16, 2012 in Features

Venturing: The past, revealed

Three louvred arches

by David D. Platt

Years ago I read an archaeologist’s account of his discoveries in Egyptian tombs. His focus wasn’t on mummies or treasure, but on just how these structures and their surroundings had come to be: how craftsmen had chiseled the stonework and moved it into place, how they had made the coffins and artwork, where their tools had left marks on stone and wood. It was all very forensic, like analyzing a crime scene — through careful observation, an investigator had been able to describe what had taken place thousands of years ago.

I’ve thought a lot about that account because it resonated with an interest I’ve had for years: how people have shaped wood, metal, brick or stone into structures for everyday use. The results might be houses, public buildings, works of art, monuments, boats or whatever was useful at the time; what always interests me is how — physically — these things were created, often a very long time ago. And I really love the process of figuring that out, through my own observations.

In my basement shop right now I’m working on a countertop that incorporates old wood. The boards are from 1833, to be precise, when the one-time school that is today my house was built. In the center of my countertop is an arched shape outlined in old, faded paint, part of a decorated window that once graced my building. I discovered this ghostly image the year before last, when I was stripping later interiors from a room at the rear. It was above one of three windows in what had once been the building’s exterior back wall; the arches had been covered with clapboards when the windows were changed 50 years after the building was built. There they sat, unseen, behind clapboards and then an interior matched-board covering (and finally plywood paneling) when the old school was enlarged and the one-time back wall became an interior partition. Since the wall was going to be partially removed during our renovation, and since from an engineering standpoint it was important to stiffen the building, we replaced its old boards with sheets of oriented strand board (OSB). But first, we carefully removed all the boards and their arches, and stored them away.

It was to this stash of wide pine from 1833 that I went this spring, when it was time to build a countertop. But let’s back up first.

“Trompe l’oeil!” someone said right away when I showed him what I’d found in my old wall. But these weren’t fool-the-eye paintings — we were looking at sloppy painted lines and drips where there’d once been a louver.  Intrigued, I recalled another interesting old building, Cape Elizabeth’s Spurwink Church, and its still-in-place louvered arches. I drove down for another look, and afterward I was able to figure out that my place had once looked the same way. Both were likely built from an old-fashioned builder’s guidebook, and in fact I’ve seen other examples on Colonial and Gothic Revival houses here and there. The louvers would have been made by a shutter mill somewhere and screwed into a framed space in the wall over the windows.

As I’ve said, there were three of these arch-marks on the former back wall. Curious to know more (moving deeper into the forensics), I kept an eye out as we worked our way around the building, pulling down more paneling and drywall on the inside and a complete overcoat of vinyl siding on the outside, wondering if we’d encounter more arches. We did, although they weren’t where we first looked for them; instead, we found fragments here and there, boards that had been pulled down when windows were replaced (and finally removed altogether when the building became an Odd Fellows lodge) and then re-used, arch marks and all, to save on lumber. Simple deduction told me we had a building that once had Gothic-arched windows, but which had been changed once and then again — until what I inherited when I bought it was a bunch of fragments with a story to tell.

Digging through my pile (the boards on the sides and front of the building stayed where they’d been since 1833, while I had cached those from the former back wall) I assembled one complete arch-mark for my countertop, trimmed its rough edges, pieced in enough “new” wood from my stash, and created a triangular surface with an arch in the middle. As I cleaned and varnished the surface I began to see (more forensics) the plane marks made by the carpenter who had smoothed these boards in 1833. I found the holes made by square nails, of course, more holes where clapboards had been nailed over the arch marks, and the three holes made by the screws that had once secured the louver. There was the scribed center line the carpenters had made as they laid out this Gothic shape over the window. The green paint on the boards had gotten there when painters with big brushes did their thing — perhaps 10 times over the years — on the arched louvers. When I really looked, it was all there.

You may have read “Tree in the Trail” by Holling Clancy Holling, a children’s book that tells the story of an ancient cottonwood tree bearing all the marks — arrowheads, carvings, bullets, iron fragments — of its history over a couple of centuries. When the tree finally dies, a thoughtful man carves its trunk into an ox yoke, and off it goes down the trail where it had stood sentinel for so many years. Yoked oxen once pulled my building to where it is today, adding yet another chapter to its long story. But for the time being I’m satisfied to know that one of the 19th century arches long hidden inside its walls can now inform 21st century people in my new kitchen. A weird turn of events for an old piece of wood with stray marks from painting, perhaps, but surely no stranger than the secrets of Egyptian tombs revealed to us, 30 centuries later. If we’re willing to listen, any old object has a story to tell.

David D. Platt was editor of the old Maine Times.

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