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Rest & Restoration: Volunteer Vacations at Historic Sites in Need of Some TLC

Jamie Donahoe at the Heritage Conservation Network sends us the following note on their hands-on building conservation workshops. A number of photographs from recent workshops are available in a special Flickr set. Thanks, Jamie!

If you had driven by the Francis Mill in Waynesville, North Carolina in July 2003, you might have stopped to take a photo of the picturesque but dilapidated structure nestled in Francis Cove. If you were to pass by the mill this summer, you would see a structure that’s neat and square, strong and weathertight. The difference: volunteers who joined a series of summertime hands-on building conservation workshops organized by Heritage Conservation Network in partnership with the Francis Mill Preservation Society.

HCN, a Boulder, Colorado-based non-profit dedicated to the conservation of the world’s architectural heritage, specializes in recruiting volunteers to assist with hands-on preservation projects in association with local preservation partners. Volunteers spend a week or more at the site, working under the guidance of a technical expert.

Back in 2003, with the mill in danger of imminent collapse, Tanna Timbes, great granddaughter of the man who built it and founder of the FMPS, contacted HCN and asked for assistance in saving it. Over the course of three workshops at Francis Mill, a total of 48 volunteers contributed more than 3,700 hours of labor, and that made all the difference.

HCN volunteers are not necessarily experienced preservationists, with only half having experience in the field. Instruction and supervision are provided by the technical expert leading the hands-on work, and participants – of all ages – quickly find themselves replastering walls,
documenting decorative paintings, shaping adobe bricks, chiseling mortises and tenons, or chipping out old cement mortar to replace it with lime mortar. The focus is on the use of traditional techniques and materials – the prescription for keeping historic buildings sound for many generations to use and appreciate.

HCN has organized workshops at more than a dozen historic sites in the past four years. In Oplotnica, Slovenia, last year, volunteers worked painstakingly to discover the original decorative paint scheme of a 17th century chapel. The workshop, led by one of Slovenia’s foremost conservators, brought nationwide attention not only to the project but also to the need to safeguard Slovenia’s cultural heritage.

HCN will return to Slovenia in 2008, when volunteers will help restore the oldest known vintner’s cottage in the Šmarško-Virštanj wine district; it dates to the 16th century and is in poor condition, much like the Francis Mill was four years ago.

Volunteer opportunities this year include work at a Queen Anne style parsonage in Jonesboro, Illinois; the Old West town of Virginia City, Montana; and colonial and traditional buildings in Ghana. All still have space available and can also accommodate groups looking for a meaningful way to volunteer. Information about these and other opportunities to help build a future for the past can be found on HCN’s website or by calling HCN at +1 303 444 0128.