STX Scale House Restoration Expected to Be Done in April

The front of the historic Scale House in Christiansted shows wear and tear. (Elisa McKay photo)
The front of the historic Scale House in Christiansted shows wear and tear. (Elisa McKay photo)

The community came out Thursday evening to hear Gary Zbel talk about restoration of the Historic Scale House in Christiansted, which he said should be completed this spring and last a century.

The room at the Guinea Company Warehouse was packed. This lecture was the first since the January meeting was postponed because of the federal government shutdown.

Zbel and his team from the National Park Service Historic Preservation Training Center (HPTC) are working to restore the second floor exterior of the scale house. Dry wood termites and beetles have severely damaged the building.

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HPTC will restore the sheathing with mahogany paneling and sidewall cedar shakes and roofing, which will create a dry, sustainable shell to keep out the weather.

Zbel’s degree in painting and print making/fine arts from Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, gives him a rich background as an historic exhibit and preservation specialist. He has worked 16 years with the National Park Service and for the past four years has been with the NPS Historic Preservation Training Center in Frederick, Maryland, where he manages a team of 30 people in the masonry and monument section.

The HPTC team has worked throughout the nation on historic buildings requiring their knowledge of carpentry, masonry/monument and wood crafting.

Assessment reports, structure reports, recording of treatments, drawings and preservation are important aspects of the restoration process, Zbel explained.

From left, William Cardis, Travis Haymaker, Gary Zbel, Jeff Dennison work on the historic Scale House. Elisa McKay photo)
From left, William Cardis, Travis Haymaker, Gary Zbel and Jeff Dennison work on the historic Scale House. Elisa McKay photo)

Zbel’s presentation gave the audience a view of the restoration HPTC has been doing on various NPS projects across the country, including repairs at the White House, the redesign and reconstruction of the porch at a black college in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, and masonry and monument work in many cemetery houses throughout the United States.

Work has already been done here on St. Croix including Fort Christiansvaern’s Gallery, the Stable Building Roof, and the Danish Well Tower at Salt River Bay.

The roof of the Historic Bandstand will also be repaired.

When asked about the use of mahogany, Zbel stated that mahogany is sustainable and resistant to weather and rot, but it’s a “catch 22” to maintain.

Stabilization of the scale house roof required removal of the old shingles replaced with air circulating under the new shingles.

The lumber used in the restoration is coming from South America, shipped to the United States, and then shipped to St. Croix.

“You can’t go to Home Depot and purchase the kind of lumber we need,” Zbel said in answer to the question of the origin of the lumber being used.

The HPTC team will replace crown logs and beams, using traditional methods, Zbel said. Often there is no choice but to use materials that will be an expense to the taxpayer, he said.

There will be no metal used. Concrete and granite stone are products of the masonry restoration. It should be a one-time thing, Zbel said.

“It should last for 100 years,” he said.

“Glazed windows and doors will be replaced with wooden slated shutters to reduce the need for maintenance. There will be a cyclic plan of painting every 10 years. The lime-washed coating used now requires redoing every two years and it is taking a toll on the structures,” Zbel added.

Jeffrey Reckner replaces shingles on the Scale House. (Elisa McKay photo)
Jeffrey Reckner replaces shingles on the Scale House. (Elisa McKay photo)

“In the process, we take a look at other avenues of permanence and the ability for breathing within the structures. We don’t want folks to continue to see mold on these iconic structures.”

The work that was done on the building in the 1970s used inferior materials that were susceptible to termite damage, Zbel pointed out. The floor was never built structurally to maintain a lot of weight, nor was it a level floor. It must be serviceable and sustainable, he said.

“The Scale House will have a new life as a Maritime Museum,” Zbel said. “It will tell the story of our port captains and our pilots. The Scale House exhibits will be up to standard. It will create another dimension to visitation.”

During the lecture, NPS researcher Zandy Hillis-Starr offered information to augment Zbel’s findings. Starr spoke about the importance of telling the stories of the enslaved people who actually constructed the town of Christiansted.

The HPTC team is taking off a side at a time and re-sheeting it before restoring the roof.

“New mahogany boards and shingles will be used and we’ll start on the roof in the next couple of weeks,” Zbel said. “The estimated time of completion is mid-April, and we are staying, of course, until it’s completed.”

Zbel has long-range plans to train a team of young Virgin Islanders to work collaboratively with the territory on critical historic preservation projects.

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