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The Preservation Story of an Icon: the Talcott Mill Belfry

March 24, 2017


The Talcott Brothers’ Mill is undergoing a “certified rehabilitation,” which means that the project is utilizing State and Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits as one of its funding sources.CT Architects, Preservation, Rehabilitation, Community Planning, Interiors, Design, Innovation Rehabilitation is defined by the National Park Service as "the process of returning a property to a state of utility, through repair or alteration, which makes possible an efficient contemporary use while preserving those portions and features of the property which are significant to its historic, architectural, and cultural values." Therefore, all work must comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. The ten Standards were designed to protect a property’s significance through the preservation of distinctive material features.

As discussed in our blog post on January 16, 2017, the bell tower is a local icon. According to Laura Knott-Twine, project manager and historic administrator for the building’s owner, “The ringing of the bell was the way workers were called to work at the woolen mill. Rarely, if ever, would mill workers own a clock, and if they did, it was not an alarm clock. The bell also rang at noon for lunch break (much like fire stations still blow their horn at noon) and also at 1pm to call them back to work. At the end of the shift the bell would signal 'quitting time.'” Laura also explains that c. 1880, mills introduced the steam whistle, often found in belfries, which could be heard at greater distances. In Willimantic, for example, the steam whistle was blown at 7am, noon, and 6pm until the mill closed in 1985.

CT Architects, Preservation, Rehabilitation, Community Planning, Interiors, Design, Innovation

Through Laura’s research we are able to understand the important social history associated with the bell tower and, visually, we can see that it is the most prominent architectural feature. In our experience, contractors often suggest replacing deteriorated wood components with modern materials like aluminum and azek to avoid cyclical maintenance; however, this is not an appropriate treatment and does not meet the Standards. Standard 6 discusses the importance of repairing rather than replacing, and replacing in-kind (matching the material, design, color, and texture) where necessary due to deterioration.

CT Architects, Preservation, Rehabilitation, Community Planning, Interiors, Design, InnovationOne of our roles as architects and historic preservation specialists is to educate builders and the public on historic preservation philosophy, like recognizing the importance of quality craftsmanship over low maintenance, mass-produced products. Starting the conversation about preservation methods provides context to the contractors so they understand the value of restoration and replacing in-kind, rather than with substitute materials. While we recognize the value of these materials in the construction industry, historic rehabilitation projects are most often not the right situation to propose replacement materials.

Cutter Enterprises, LLC of Vernon Connecticut, the contractor, is responsible for the restoration of the belfry. Owner and President, Bob Dwyer, took a personal interest in the project and led the team, which included John Marquis, Supervisor, and Dan Fabris, Master Carpenter, with passion and pride. Custom wood carving knives were fabricated and used to replicate all components of the belfry requiring replacement. Everyone involved had great attention to detail and performed the work with care. Cutter was so excited about this project that they took the initiative to have a plaque made that lists the original construction date, the restoration date, contractor, restoration crew and structural engineer—a very thoughtful idea!

On Monday, March 20, 2017, calm day with clear blue skies and sunshine, the belfry was lifted, guided into place, and secured to a new steel structure on the top floor of the tower. Please refer to the bell tower diagram for a graphic representation of the work discussed. The tower roof will soon be finished, and the spire installed. Stay tuned for pictures of the complete bell tower restoration, as well as the entire building rehabilitation.

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By Nina Caruso, MSHP, James Fiore, and Laura Knott-Twine, MA