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School takes on the nuts and bolts of preservation

Rob Harbour, manager of Ebey’s Landing historical reserve, enters the old outhouse that is part of the 1860 Ferry House currently undergoing historical preservation during Field School classes.   - Rick Levin
Rob Harbour, manager of Ebey’s Landing historical reserve, enters the old outhouse that is part of the 1860 Ferry House currently undergoing historical preservation during Field School classes.
— image credit: Rick Levin

A web of steel risers now surrounds an old, listing building out on Ebey’s Landing. A couple of dedicated guys from the national parks service are busy making sure the house, built by one of Whidbey Island’s founding fathers, doesn’t crumble under the strain of years. It’s hard work, but also fascinating and completely worthwhile.

In the best of academic traditions, a series of 5-week courses in historical preservation currently taking place around Ebey’s Landing combines learning with valuable hands-on experience — while also helping to restore such important historical structures as the old Ferry House in Coupeville, first built in 1860 by Isaac Ebey.

The eighth annual Pacific Northwest Field School, sponsored by the University of Oregon and continuing on through Sept. 14, is comprised of five consecutive one-week courses, including seminars as well as direct experience in various aspects of historic building preservation. The courses are college accredited.

The event also includes a lecture series — open and free to the public and being held at Camp Casey — which focuses on such subjects as historical architecture, preservation theory and process, historical interpretation and planning issues. The lectures are conducted by U of O professors and other smart people who know a thing or two about old buildings.

The Ferry House appears to be the intellectual and experiential centerpiece of the Field School series, though other projects include such things as the restoration of the log structure near the Ebey’s Landing offices. Rob Harbour, manager of Ebey’s Landing, said the Ferry House is important both for its historical significance as well as the relatively good condition of the structure, which is surprising considering it’s almost 150 years old.

“It’s a timepiece,” Harbour said. “It’s in pretty pristine condition.”

Parks service workers Jason Benson and Scott Swenson have been working since April to make sure that the house’s pristine condition doesn’t deteriorate. In June, they completed work on the foundation, and currently are at work bolstering up the roof through an internal framework of new beams.

“What we’re trying to resolve now is keeping the walls from sagging,” Benson said. “Over time, the building just kind of scrunched into itself.”

The architecture of the Ferry House is decidedly not modern, with wall-to-wall vertical planks providing the primary load-bearing skeleton. Benson said many of the decisions they have to make regarding how to best fix up the house are dictated by the odd way the place was put together.

“There’s a lot of decisions you’ve got to make on the fly,” he said. “You just kind of work with what you’ve got. That’s the name of the game with historical structures.”

Harbour seconds this idea, saying that the goal of historical restoration is to do only what is needed at a particular point in time. “Generally, that’s the rule,” he said. “You don’t mess with it unless you have to. You try to interfere as little as possible.

“You’re not going for pretty,” he added. “You only replace what you have to.”

The reason for the minimum-impact principal is obvious: Folks want to see how things looked “back then,” as unreconstructed as is both feasible and safe. Judging by the work that’s been done on the Ferry House so far, workers are achieving their goal (just pretend the risers aren’t there).

Field School lectures

The lectures are held at the Old Quartermasters Building at Camp Casey, across from the Parade Grounds. Lectures begin at 7:30 p.m. and are free and open to the public. Come early for best seating.

Monday, Aug. 26: “Chinese Settlement and Farming in Ebey’s Prairie.”

Tuesday, Aug. 27: “Landscapes of the Internet.”

Wednesday, Aug. 28: “The Designed Landscape of the Wonderland Trail, Mt. Rainier National Park.”

Thursday, Aug. 29: “NPS Orchards Slide Lecture.”

Monday, Sept. 2: “Orientation to Coastal Fortifications.”

Tuesday, Sept. 3: “Technology Lecture: Concrete, metals.”

Wednesday, Sept. 4: “Fortifications at Golden Gate NRA, San Francisco.”

Thursday, Sept. 5: “19th Century Architecture.”

Monday, Sept. 9: “19th Century Architecture,”

Tuesday, Sept. 10: “Backcountry Lookouts in North Cascades: Preservation and Maintenance.”

Wednesday, Sept. 11: “Design Review in a National Historic Landmark District,”

Thursday, Sept. 12: To Be Announced

For more information, call 678-6084.

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