Restoring layers of history
Historic Chevigny house gets a long, painstaking facelift
By: Amy Crofts
| Posted: Saturday, Oct 26, 2013 06:00 am
Rotted floorboards, moulded shingles and graffiti stained walls. Some people might see a dump, an old forgotten farmhouse that should be demolished. But not Merlin Rosser.
When he looks at the Chevigny house he sees a cultural gem.
“The value is not in the building itself but the story it tells,” Rosser says of the more than 120-year-old solid log-framed homestead, just slightly younger than St. Albert itself. “It’s ingrained in every single year of that building.”
Rosser is the heritage sites manager for the Musée Héritage Museum. He has been overseeing the restoration of the Chevigny home for the last year, ensuring every window, door – and even nail – is restored as closely as possible to its original standing.
The house dates back to the mid-1880s, when Québécois brothers David and Louis Chevigny constructed the homestead on a parcel of land near what is now Old Coal Mine Road at St. Albert’s north end.
Having survived the growth of the Chevigny family through several generations, as well as multiple structural conversions (at one point used as a rest house and also a pig barn) and a move on the back of a flatbed trailer, the house now sits on Riverlot 24 in St. Albert’s Grain Elevator Park.
The restoration is part of the city's long-term arts and heritage master plan to construct an 1880s French Canadian farmstead on Riverlot 23 with other period buildings such as the Brosseau Granary and the Cunningham and Hogan houses, which are also being restored.
Out with the old
When the rebuilding of the Chevigny home began in 2010, the first order of business was to cook it.
In order to rid the house of mould, pests, bacteria and fungi, workers tarped off the structure and heated it for 14 hours using industrial gas burners and fans. The structure reached 150 degrees Fahrenheit, comparable to the interior temperature of a car on a hot summer day.
The heat didn't damage the structure, as wood only begins to burn at more than 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Rosser said the Chevigny house is the first historic property to be sanitized using heat treatment rather than chemical eradication.
Over the next two summers, the restoration team continued its work, replicating the original structure's hand-hewn logs – squared logs notched together in a notable French style – to replace wood that had rotted. Team members also cleared out what could not be salvaged.
Among the unique features of the house that couldn't be saved were the dormer windows.
"It takes about 100 years for the nitrogen (in the wood) to break down completely," explains Rosser, crumbling a sliver of wood from the original frame between his fingers.
"When (that happens) all you have left is the vacant empty shell. So when it’s crushed up, it becomes what we call friable. When you put it in your hand it will just disappear."
Reading the walls
Without original architectural drawings of the Chevigny house, Rosser and his team rely heavily on archival photographs, family anecdotes and the building itself to tell them what it looked like when it was completed around 1890.
Each layer of the house they peel back, yields a new discovery, Rosser notes.
“The roof tells you where the walls were and what width they were,” he says, adding that the original walls were considerably thinner than they are today.
He explains that the original floor joists and dovetailed joints indicate where the stairwell was as well as the orientation of the floorboards, which are opposite on each floor.
It's an oddity he can't explain.
"But we can only go with what the building tells us," he says.
Whitewashed walls and the weathering pattern on some of the logs tell the team that the interior and exterior vertical siding was added years after the house was built. Since Louis Chevigny worked at a sawmill and could only bring home a certain amount of wood per year for himself, the siding took up to 10 years to put up.
What served as insulation in those between years was an old caulking technique called oakum that was used in the construction of wooden ships. Made from natural fibres such as hemp soaked in oil or pine tar, the fibre was driven between the log seams on the inside of the house.
"In this house you get different little bits of stories from both (brothers)," says Rosser, referring to the carpentry and ship building techniques used throughout the house, a testament to the skills of the Chevigny brothers.
This is the first time in 36 years of restoration experience that he’s seen oakum used for caulking in a home. Mud and clay for traditional log chinking was used on the exterior of the house to keep out the elements.
When the exterior vertical siding was removed earlier on in the restoration the house divulged another secret, an imprint of an add-on structure, which led the team to believe there was a summer kitchen.
Common in prairie homesteads, summer kitchens were used to keep the heat of cooking away from the rest of the house. Rosser thinks the summer kitchen was added on a year or two after the house was built and may have stayed on as late as the 1950s.
He says the summer kitchen may be rebuilt as part of the restoration plans.
In with the new
Whatever original building material can’t be salvaged, the restoration team does its best to replicate as closely as possible.
This year, for example, the house received new roof boards, rafters and cedar shingles, cut from the same wood varieties and to the same dimensions as were found on the original structure. Even the nails, a square-cut variety that prevents the wood from splitting, were ordered from Louisiana to maintain historical accuracy.
The last job on the house to be done this year is the exterior vertical siding. All of the windows, including a pair of dormer windows, will be restored over the winter. Next year the windows and doors will be put in and work on the interior will commence.
Once the Chevigny house is completed, it will be just under 2,000 square feet with two levels and an attic.
Rosser says the project should be finished by 2015.