When it was built it was just right for the times. But it didn’t adapt… Rooms were shut off and fell out of use. Neglect left the paint chipped, with bare wood and brick showing through… rehabilitation fails with no sustainable plan for use. ~ Stef Noble (www.stef.net)
I don’t recollect how I came across Demolition, a blog post by Stef Noble (@stefnoble). I don’t know her. I don’t even know about her. But somehow I stumbled across her reflection on what happens at the end of a building’s life. She ponders demolition, debris, salvage, sensitivity to neighbors and environment. And she wanders into wonders about the transition, preparedness, shelter…
Like an enigmatic poem that continues to resonate long after that first encounter… Stef’s words have hooked me, drawn me back again and again.
The post moves from conviction and resolve to questions. From “sometimes you find that there is nothing left to save” and “It must be a salvage process” to “What does your shelter look like now?”
It’s a poignant, provocative post despite its brevity and abstraction. I have no idea what or where the building is or even whether the building is a metaphor for something else that’s beyond rehabilitation, something else that must be dismantled sensitively and responsibly before moving on. But like an enigmatic poem that continues to resonate long after that first encounter, inspiring rereading upon rereading, Stef’s words have hooked me, drawn me back again and again.
Noble Demolition & Rosslyn Rehabilitation
At the risk of misappropriation (Sorry!) I have transposed Stef’s wonder to Rosslyn’s endless rehabilitation. Inadvertently. Inevitably.
There are obvious differences. Rosslyn was repeatedly adapted across almost two centuries. From year-round residence to seasonal residence to inn, restaurant and tavern. From Georgian to Federal to Greek Revival to Victorian and back to Greek Revival/Georgian. From stately home and outbuildings to dilapidated, structurally failing buildings more readily, easily, and cost effectively demolished than rehabilitated. Rosslyn adapted.
But rooms fell out of use, and rooms were shut off. A large portion of the rear ell (wing) was removed half a century ago. In fact the rear ell has undergone four or five, maybe even six significant rebuilds and alterations since the 1820s. And the front facade was dramatically altered early in the 1900s when a vast Victorian wraparound porch was added. This lake overlook was removed several decades before Rosslyn became our home.
In short, Rosslyn’s story is first and foremost one of adaption. Repeat adaption. Her perseverance has been at least partly due to her perennial adaptability.
Nevertheless when we were in the final pre-purchase days, the inspector opined that the boathouse and icehouse were probably unrecoverable. Use them while we could or demolish and replace them. There were other eleventh hour surprises that jeopardized the sale too, but demolition as a recommendation was unnerving.
Rosslyn’s boathouse was precisely what I’d fallen for. Tear it down? No chance. And the ice house promised to be the perfect office/studio/playhouse. Think desk, aisle, pool table, bar!
In both cases we forged ahead, prevailing upon the planning board, engineers, contractors (and detractors) that these buildings should be, could be, would be preserved. Underpinning our confidence and our persistence was the conviction articulated so well by Stef Noble:
rehabilitation fails with no sustainable plan for use
In order to ensure that Rosslyn’s iconic boathouse/dock house would continue to welcome ferry passengers to Essex long into the future, it needed to be more than an historic artifact. It needed to be relevant and useful. It needed to adapt.
No longer serving the Kestrel as a boathouse and coal storage facility, the boathouse needed to evolve. It need to become our waterfront, useful and relevant to us. Rosslyn’s boathouse should accommodate our boating and water sports needs. We windsurf. We waterski. We sail. We entertain nieces and nephews and friends who enjoy fishing and playing on the beach and barbecuing…
The sustainable plan for Rosslyn’s boathouse involved adapting the precarious building into a safe, inviting and attractive place of waterfront activity once again. And despite the odds, we prevailed. The boathouse remains the heart and soul of our Rosslyn lifestyle.
And some day — in the still unknown future — I hope that the boathouse will evolve again to satisfy and inspire Rosslyn’s future stewards.
The ice house is another story.
We stabilized the failing structure, replaced the failed roof, repaired the crumbling stone foundation and upgraded the mechanicals. But then we mothballed the project, deferring the next phase indefinitely until circumstances warranted moving forward. For several years we’ve used the ice house as a storage and maintenance annex for the carriage barn, but recently we’ve begun to address a sustainable plan for use. I hope to address this in more depth over the course of the next year. But for now, I’ll just say that we understand that simply stabilizing the building is not enough. Successful rehab demands a sustainable plan for use. And we’re working on it!
The carriage barn and house have been rehabilitated and are serving the modern iteration of the original purposes for which they were built. The house is a home. We live and work and entertain at Rosslyn. I genuinely hope that the future is bright for this structure remaining a year-round residence for a long time. And while horses and carriages no longer come and go, the carriage barn is a handsome but utilitarian space for cars and tractors and a colorful parade of property maintenance equipment. There are bicycles and winter storage for kayaks and windsurfers. In a real sense the building has been rehabilitated into a modern “carriage barn”.
If you’re still with me, I apologize for getting carried away. My mind was wandered. And I’ve still fallen short of conveying why exactly Stef Noble’s post continues to resonate for me. I suppose I’m still not 100% certain. But it seems to share some DNA with the adventure my bride and I undertook in the summer of 2006 when we pulled up roots in Manhattan and set down roots in the Adirondacks with the dream of rehabilitating Rosslyn…