Bakery restoration making giant strides: Spring 2019 construction update

FORT WARD, BAINBRIDGE ISLAND: Up in the rafters, under the earth and everywhere in between, restoration of Fort Ward’s historic bakery building is making giant strides in spring 2019. Here’s an update on masonry restoration, repairs to the century-old rafters, our new custom corbel knee-braces and plinth, and more.

For more images of the work, see the new spring 2019 gallery at http://www.fortwardhall.org. And remember to Like us at www.facebook.com/friendsoffortward for the most up-to-date reports (and lots more photos) on the bakery restoration.

HITTING A BAD PATCH – AND MAKING IT GOOD: Some days we correct for time, some days for error. Restoration of the historic Fort Ward bakery’s beautiful brick shell has largely been an exercise in the latter: fixing things that someone, somewhere along the way, screwed up. Like the jagged hole hacked through the back wall to run a dryer vent. Or the splendid corbel plinth smashed flat when the front porch was hideously enclosed. Or the … but we could be at this for a while. Suffice it to say our restoration masons have been correcting these many slights and offenses against the building’s architectural integrity, with great patience and skill, one after the next.

Eric of Masonry Restoration Consulting with the bakery’s newly repaired front wall.

With their lengthy task list winding down, the ace team from Masonry Restoration Consulting Inc. of Lake Stevens – PJ, Toby, and Eric – turned their attention to one of the last big jobs, maybe the one you’re most likely to notice: Fixing the terrible patch job on the building’s north face. It’s been an eyesore for decades, a blight on the building and a visual assault against all passersby. What happened? Sometime in the 1940s, when the old Army bakery was repurposed as a power station for Naval Radio Station Bainbridge Island, someone in the chain of command decided the building wasn’t big enough. It needed another room, probably a bunkhouse and shower for whoever kept the big generator running.

The north wall before restoration. Note the very poor patch over the 1940s-era doorway.

A concrete pad was poured and a new frame structure grafted on. But instead of just framing in a simple entrance, they – egregiously – punched the doorway through the bakery wall. Ouch. Worse, when the add-on was finally torn down and the doorway patched up, the repair job could charitably described as … amateurish. Mismatched and damaged bricks, thrown together in uneven rows. Gobs of mortar. Sloppy pointing. Just terrible work all around. As masonry goes, it was the typographic equivalent of a ransom note. “Some staff sergeant probably said, ‘Fill it! I don’t care what it looks like,’” mason Eric mused, as he took up the trowel to make things right.

Going into the bakery restoration, we weren’t even sure this blight could be fixed. We talked about just buying a big potted tree, setting it in front of the wall and hoping Fort Ward Community Hall users wouldn’t notice. But for the restoration masons, hey, no problem. The fix actually got underway before Christmas; as PJ and Toby methodically reopened bricked-over windows, they also chiseled away the outer layer of the ad-hoc patch job. With the wall void exposed, they could add an extra wythe (vertical layer) for strength.

Now it was time to set the outer wythe. While most repairs have used reconditioned bricks salvaged from around the bakery, this job called for new color-matched units sourced from an area supplier. Purchased oversized, each brick was cut down to length and meticulously set into place, one course upon the next. It looks great. In fact, when the weathered wall around it gets a gentle cleaning, the new work should blend right in. Quite an improvement over last try. Pays to hire real masons!

There’s one more big job ahead in the masonry phase, and we promise you’ll notice that one too. For now, take a stroll by the bakery and admire this fine work by our skilled masons, and a big brick wall where past and present meet with barely a seam.

RAFTER REPAIRS – THIS MAKES US BEAM:  It was spring 2007, and the Fort Ward Sewer District has just purchased the fort’s historic bakery building for restoration – someday – as a community hall. Tagging along with Mike Yuhl, sewer district engineer, and Don Ashton, retired architect and Fort Ward neighbor, your correspondent ventured up into the bakery attic to see firsthand what were described as failing rafters needing serious repair. What we found (besides grime and years of accumulated junk): Several of the long beams that span the main room had split at some point over the bakery’s then-97-year history. Yikes! The roof would stand (with some stopgap bracing by Mike), but any long-term restoration would have to address this structural issue. No way around it.

New custom-milled fir rafters in the bakery’s attic.

Flash forward to spring 2019, and it’s up to the attic again – this time, to fix the rafters for good. We commissioned a visit from island structural engineer Dayle Houk, who spent a couple of hours gamely clambering around up in the rafters for a thorough, up-to-date assessment. Her recommendation: “Just replace like with like.”

In this case, “Like” would mean some particularly high-grade fir beams, custom milled for the application. Our quest led us to Angeles Millwork & Lumber of Port Angeles. While we’ve sourced most of our milling needs on the island, this time we found what we needed amongst the towering trees of the Olympic Peninsula. Four 12-foot spans of clear fir … and boy, were they clear. Beautiful vertical grain, and not a knot to be found. Thank you, precious Northwest forests – we’ll put these to good use, we promise.

The original rafters — note that several had split, from time or the weight of the ceiling below.

Now came the delicate part: out with the old, in with the new. Special vertical supports were jacked into place beneath key beams, buttressing the roof and its crowning cupola so the damaged members could be carefully removed – edgy work, to be sure. The joist system was a sandwich affair, twin beams straddling mates and thru-bolted within the embrace of sturdy metal plates. This hardware probably hadn’t been touched since the bakery went up in 1910, but the bolts freed up without much effort. A few hours later, the new rafters were in place and secure. The jacks were slowly lowered to let everything settle back into place, and … and … it stood! As if there was ever any doubt. “It’s stronger than it was eight hours ago,” mused Casey Shortbull of BI Metro Parks, our construction team lead, “and it’s stood this long.”

While we’ll never know exactly why the old rafters split – “time” is a perfectly plausible guess– we suspect it might have had something to do with the load of the bakery’s original ceiling of cement and metal lath. That ceiling was HEAVY – a ridiculous 15 lbs. per square foot. Given the main room is about 950 sf., that’s over 14,000 lbs. of mass that’s been pulling the roof toward the floor all these years. No wonder something finally gave. By contrast, the new ceiling of 5/8-inch sheetrock should weigh in at a tidy 2.3 lbs. per square foot. You can almost feel the building shake its shoulders and heave a sigh of relief.

To bring this project element full circle, we shared pictures with our engineer emeritus Mike Yuhl, now retired to Lake Sammamish. Mike’s response: “WOW!” Thanks, Mike – it took a while, but we did it. Maybe there was never any doubt. Longtime South Beach resident and fine woodworker John Steiner, who calls the bakery’s intricate roof truss system “a work of art,” said he would have been confident even without the temporary bracing (although he understood the precaution). Referencing R. Buckminster Fuller, who popularized the geodesic dome, John described the bakery’s roof structure as exemplifying “self-supporting pattern integrity.” That is, the design is such that it basically holds itself up. After a century-plus, it’s hard to argue. And now we’re sure.

RESTORING  THOSE KNEE BRACES – THE B’S KNEES: One of the primary elements of the bakery project has been restoring the beautiful original facade. Among other details, that entailed milling and cutting new knee braces to hold up the front porch overhang, specifically the two braces left of the door as you face the building. The original pair were destroyed when the porch was enclosed many years ago. Fortunately, we had the other pair (and the original 1908 blueprints from the National Archives) to work from and copy.

The new knee-brace system supporting the bakery’s front porch overhang.

But this was an interdisciplinary element that also required some crafty work by our masons. More on that in a moment; first, the braces. While the work isn’t quite done, the two new braces got plugged in recently to see how they fit – very nicely indeed. Note how the diagonal brace is inset slightly into the horizontal beam end with an angled cut to support the load above, negating the need for a vertical pillar. Old-school engineering.

As noted in an earlier post, these stout beams were custom milled from island timber by David Kotz Woodworking of Day Road. Custom corbel cutting (the fancy scroll work at the end) was done by Casey, our construction lead. Now, here’s where the masons came in: The diagonal brace is supported at the wall by a protruding brick plinth.

The newly rebuilt corbel plinth.

Unfortunately, the plinth on this side had been hammered flat sometime in the past. But we still had the original plinth on the other side to model, plus those handy blueprints. The masons had to chip out the voids where the plinth was structurally set into the wall, then rebuild it to match. And match it they did.

We marvel at the simple elegance of the bakery’s knee-brace design — truly, the B’s knees — which transfers the load of the porch overhang to the building wall. Nice engineering, Army architects of yore! And great work by our bakery restoration team, putting it all back together for the next hundred years.

DIG THIS – PARKING LOT CONSTRUCTION BEGINS: These are the times that try the treasurer’s soul. At one point recently we had no fewer than 10 craftsmen working onsite at the Fort Ward bakery restoration: a slater on the roof, two masons working the walls, everyone else furrowing the very earth. With construction of the community hall’s new parking lot underway, extensive digging and trenching for the stormwater system dominated the week. It was maddeningly precise work, to ensure the system of vaults, catchments and lines were planted at just the right angle and depth – we’re talking fractions of inches – so as to convey rainwater from the southwest corner of the property out to the catch basin under Evergreen Drive.

Installation of the custom stormwater filtration system as the Fort Ward Community Hall’s parking lot takes shape.

The work was complicated by the discovery that seemingly every underground utility in the neighborhood converged right in the path of the new pipe, a veritable farrago of lines to be painstakingly dug around and skirted. This necessitated excavation with a noisy and not inexpensive “vactor” truck, a titanic vacuum that sounded like a 747 revving its engines for takeoff on the SeaTac runway. Sorry, neighbors! This is all in a good cause, we promise. And with no reported outages of power, cable or phone, we think we got it right.

Through it all was the lumbering choreography of the heavy machinery, twin backhoes slinging gravel and earth to and fro in an elaborate mechanized dance. The rattling jackhammers. The thudding compacters. The buzzing generators to power them all. On a per-hour basis, it was probably the most expensive week of the whole restoration. We had to remind ourselves that at the end of the project, our Friends of Fort Ward bank account is supposed to say $0 and that’s okay. Heaven help us, not before then.

In any event, our Park District construction team – David, Casey, Chris and Erik – gave 150 percent putting in the storm system, as did South Point Development Co.’s Dale Flodin, who moves earth with the precision of icing a cake. It gave us pause to reflect on our respective roles in the bakery restoration project. All your correspondent has to do is play General behind the lines – raise money, keep an eye on historical accuracy, and chronicle what goes on with reports like this one.

On this week, the real heroes fought in the trenches. But isn’t that usually the case.