Joining Together for a cause

story and photos by John Adamski

This article combines three different stories – one of which dates back to medieval Europe and two that are more recent – and they all converge to benefit the Finger Lakes Museum. Let’s start with the 2014 land donation of a 16-acre wetland to the museum by sisters Anne Salisbury and Mary Sujan. The property had been in their family for three generations and included 2,000 feet of water frontage on Sugar Creek and 265 feet of frontage on the lake. It provides marshy habitat for a variety of wild animals and birds that include ducks, geese, herons, ospreys, muskrats, beavers, the rare soft-shelled turtle and the occasional bald eagle.

By mutual agreement, the wetlands were to be known as the Townsend-Grady Wildlife Preserve and remain in a natural state with no residential, commercial or industrial development allowed. The sisters did make some allowances, however, that provided for public use and enjoyment with improvements such as a woodland path, a wetland boardwalk, and a pavilion for bird watchers and nature lovers. After several years of working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, permits were issued and the work to accomplish each of these improvements is underway.

Now let’s rewind back to the Middle Ages when the Renaissance led to the construction of spectacular architectural structures – most notably cathedrals – that were built using the clearspan art and science of timber framing. The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is an excellent example. But timber frame construction wasn’t exclusive to soaring churches. It was also used in house and other edifice construction, a typical example of which is the English Tudor style of architecture.

Traditional timber framing is a building method in which heavy timbers are attached together using various shapes of wood-to-wood joinery that are drilled and pegged with hardwood dowels to form the rigid skeleton of a structure. Medieval artisans chiseled mortise-and-tenon joinery into timbers that were adze-squared from huge logs using mallets, and bored holes with a cranking implement known as a brace-and-bit. Building a large timber structure often took years – more than 200 in the case of Notre Dame.

Today, with modern tools, machinery and systems developed specifically for that purpose, a timber frame structure can be cut, drilled, shaped and raised in a matter of days. In fact, New Energy Works in Farmington, where I worked as an architectural designer until I retired, uses an enormous computer-driven machine to do all of those things and more. A shop worker simply loads the blank stock onto a conveyor with a fork lift, inserts the design disc into the computer, turns the machine on and walks away. Then amazing things happen.

Now let’s meet Robert Hughes, a science teacher and 29-year veteran at Wayland-Cohocton Central School. In an article he wrote in Scantlings, the official newsletter of the Timber Framers Guild, Rob describes himself as a “self-taught, middle-aged timber framer,” who “laments all of those wasted years prior to finding my life’s passion.” On his own, Rob has indeed evolved into a knowledgeable and proficient practitioner of the craft.

But the crux of his article expresses his concern for the declining number of timber framing disciples and the increasing difficulty bringing young people into the trade. With those thoughts in mind, Rob was able to convince the administration at Wayland-Cohocton to let him teach a timber framing class to a select number of high school students. The accredited course, known as STEAM – an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math, which he co-teaches with technology teacher Jim McLaughlin – lasts for 40 weeks and is now in its fourth year.

For the past two years, Rob also taught a two-week Advanced Timber Framing Workshop at the Finger Lakes Museum as part of its summer programming. Last year, workshop participants cut the white pine timbers for an 18-foot octagonal pavilion to be raised in the Townsend-Grady wetlands upon completion. Building materials were paid for by the museum with a $20,000 grant from the Rochester Area Community Foundation.

Rob designed the frame on a computer using a 3D software program called SketchUp. Unlike rectangular structures, there are few right angles in an eight-sided frame. Much of it has to be cut on 22-1/2 degree angles. The frame itself was cut by two different student groups. The joinery was started during Rob’s workshop at the museum last August and completed by the STEAM class during the 2018-2019 school year. Its structural integrity is entirely dependent on a center piece called a “boss pin”, which is located at the peak of the roof.

The frame was raised on a pier-platform in the marsh on May 21. High school students in knee-high boots slogged through water and mud to accomplish the task in a single day. The pavilion will be accessed by a boardwalk that is currently under construction and become available for museum programs and public use once the boardwalk is complete.

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