African House. Melrose Plantation, Melrose Louisiana




and after!

This was a very exciting and interesting project. For multiple reasons: First of all I had another chance to work with friend and fellow timber framer Alicia Spence of Northampton, Massachusetts, who got the call to help this building.

Secondly I had never been to Louisiana and never imagined that I would head there to work on a preservation project.

The third reason is that this was a project to be completed with young local inexperienced talent, something that I’ve done many times with Alicia and the Timber Framers Guild.

Lastly, look at the unusual shape of this building! One can see how after two hundred years of supporting those overhangs a frame can need some extra support. Notice the corner bracing in the first picture. It was added in the early 2000’s.

This article introduces you to the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, which is located in Natchitoches and was a great partner in this project.

July 2015

Finally I find the time to embellish this project with more pictures:


First let me reintroduce you to this building.

The African House is located on Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches parish in Louisiana. It is not far from the Cane River, which is today a 30 mile long oxbow lake, but used to be an early trade route when this building was built, estimated around 1809.


It has a brick first floor and a hewn log second floor with dovetailed corner joints. Above is a very lightly framed hip roof with a little over 8′ overhangs. The outside dimensions of the wall are 17′ by 22’6″. The wood is Cyprus.

Africa House and the murals it houses have recently been designated as a National Treasure by the National trust for Historic Preservation and as such are a cherished part of the Cane River National Heritage Area. Therefore the methods used in this project had to comply with the Secretary of the Interiors standards for preservation.

The other major intention that Melrose Plantation had for this project was to make it educational. Therefore a HOPE crew was engaged to execute the work under professional guidance. HOPE stands for Hands On Preservation Experience and aims to give young professionals an entry into preservation work.

Lets get started:

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We need sawhorses for joinery work and log dogs for hewing.


Cyprus logs were donated by International Paper.


A visual study of the frame quickly reveals that certain key timbers have fractured. The two long plates at the overhangs and one short one were seriously bent and weakened by decay.


At least four of the rafters were broken at the point where they passed over the log walls. As we removed the shingles we found that two more rafters had suffered that fate. If we wanted to reestablish the structural integrity of this roof and remove the corner supports we needed to replace these timbers with health new ones.


Hence the logs.


They would be peeled…

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…laid out and hewed to dimension.

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All executed by students that started out as green as the timbers.


While one half of the crew was busy learning how to hew the other half started stripping the shingle roof.


Carefully tagging each piece of strapping and examining it for structural integrity with a strong bias towards reuse.

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The next step in the conversion process is pit sawing.


Which means ripping the hewn timbers to their final size.


Splitting the final bit with levers…


Revealing telltale triangular traces of the method we had observed on the building.

There are of course many opinions about how to execute a project like this one and even with the standards of the Secretary of the Interior for guidance there can be much discussion. Alicia and I opted for reproduction using authentic processes and tools for several reasons: We prefer healthy wood over the introduction of foreign materials such as steel plates and epoxy. While they can stabilize the structure in its current shape, this approach does little in the way of educating preservationists about the way the building was built, creating an even larger gap between the present and the past.


A fully stripped roof reveals the very delicate and elegant roof framing.


Hip and jack rafters are carefully lowered.


The pegged half lap joint of the plates shows relish failure. Another argument for replacing the beams.

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A very deep birds mouth joint at the eave was intended to reduce the roll created by the struts coming up to the opposite corner. Some rafter tails had already been replaced. We needed to do this for only a few more.

Together with the project engineer we came up with a solution

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