Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
About two dozen people spent their lunch hour on October 2, 2013, brown bagging it at the Amelia Island Museum of History, where project architect John Cotner updated them on the painstaking efforts to renovate and restore the historic train depot at the foot of Centre Street in Fernandina Beach’s historic district.
Cotner explained why what many thought would be a simple job has turned out to be a project with many complexities. In the course of examining the old brick structure, lots of information about old building techniques and materials has been uncovered – along with many examples of well-intentioned but poorly planned and executed repair work over the more than 100 years of the depot’s existence.
The restoration work at a cost of roughly $300K is being underwritten by three groups: $125K from the Amelia Island Tourism Development Council (TDC), the current tenant; $125K from the City of Fernandina Beach, the landlord; and $50K from the Amelia Island Fernandina Restoration Foundation. This work currently only encompasses exterior work and work to stabilize the structure. Interior work will probably follow in late 2013 or early 2014.
One of the most time-consuming tasks for restorers has been removing paint: about 14 layers of paint, to be exact. Initially workers thought a paste-type remover might work. That would only soften 3-4 layers at a time, so the craftsmen moved on to infrared heat plates, which are still slow but better than the paste. Another challenge came with brick repair.
According to Cotner, the brick on the west side of the building was so brittle that you could see daylight through the wall. Earlier repair efforts on some of the brickwork created more problems because the wrong type of mortar was used. In order to save as much as possible of the original materials, power tools cannot be used. Restorers are using mostly chisels and hammers to do the repairs, along with brushes and mild soap to clean the surfaces.
The windows presented a special challenge. The depot contains 12 standard windows and 2 large, arched windows. Over time the wood frames weathered to the point that the bottom rails of the windows were completely rotted out. Thanks to the generosity of local shrimper David Cook, who donated heart pine from his old docks, those rails are being replaced with newly milled wood of the same type.
New doors will also be constructed from the old wood. While the existing doors facing Centre Street will be retained, two doorways will be added to the west side facing the train tracks and the riverfront. Those were the original depot doorways at the time the depot was constructed in 1899.
Due to weathering and lack of proper maintenance over the years the work on wood elements has progressed slowly. Each window has been removed and taken to a shop in Jacksonville where pieces have been numbered and the window completely disassembled for repair. In order to restore the old wood, pieces have been soaked in vats of turpentine and linseed oil prior to reassembly with the old glass. Re-glazing is also a time-consuming activity because the older techniques require more time for the window putty to set. Cotner stressed that pegs, not nails, are being used to fasten wood elements, just as in the old days.
In response to an audience question about anticipated completion date, Cotner replied that there remain at least two more weeks of paint stripping before painting (with oil based paint) can be done. He said that in working on this project, he has learned: “You don’t know where you are headed until you get there.” While the project remains on budget, timing has had to be adjusted because of problems encountered along the way. Plans for interior work are incomplete because it is not yet known how much of the original budget will remain after the exterior has been completed.
Some of the advice Cotner proffered for future building longevity included avoiding well intentioned but untrained volunteer help. He cited problems encountered with earlier repointing of lower brick courses, which was done with the wrong type of mortar in the wrong style. It has proved impossible to remedy that mistake because removal of the mortar would destroy the brick.
While paint analysis is still underway, people will probably be surprised when the building’s wood elements are painted their original colors. Window sashes were barn red; frames were goldenrod; eaves were tan; roof brackets were forest green. It has not been decided whether to paint the doors red or green. Cotner hopes, that after all the work to bring out the original wood grain, the interior window frames will not be painted.
He spoke briefly about the possibility of returning the covered train platform, an element that has disappeared over time. Such an element would cost around $100K, according to Cotner, and is not part of the current project. He mentioned that there has been some interest among private citizens in financing that project, which would create a covered, viewing or performance area for visitors and various local events.
In response to a question as to how long the restoration project could be expected to hold up, Cotner said, “We are where we are because of neglect. The building owners [the city] did only what they had to do to keep the building open. What the building will need is a credible maintenance system to continue its useful life.”
Cotner turned to Fernandina Beach City Commissioner Arlene Filkoff, who was in the audience, and invited her to comment. She agreed with Cotner about the need for a maintenance plan, adding that maintenance has been a problem for all city buildings, not just historic ones. She reminded audience members that the only reason the city is involved in the train depot restoration is because of money that was borrowed as part of the Forward Fernandina Strategic Plan to improve downtown Fernandina Beach. Since the remainder of the money was returned unspent, she suggested that citizens concerned about historic preservation of public properties or maintenance of city property in general need to be persistent and vocal in expressing concerns to city commissioners. She said, “Citizens need to make the connection between the Historic District and their wallets.” She said that her experience is that many citizens do not look at the city as a whole, but rather view it on a neighborhood basis. As an example, she cited one beach resident who said that he couldn’t care less if the historic post office building on Centre Street were to be bulldozed. She cautioned audience members that with city staffing cuts, maintenance issues could be even more difficult.
John Cotner commended all the workers and crafts people who have demonstrated such dedication to the depot project, including: Clayton Buchanan, project manager; Avondale Restoration and Masonry Plus.
For more information on the Museum’s Brown Bag Lunch Lecture Series, consult the Museum’s website www.ameliamuseum.org.
October 3, 2013 4:51 p.m.