In Old Fort, a renowned artisan makes a lasting impression
When Old Fort residents Bob and Suzanne Nelson decided to restore the badly deteriorated masonry on their property at 5 E. Main St., they wanted to keep intact the character of the building and its unique arched brick entrance.
The arch is one of several features that evoked the building's 19th Century origins, which include “the signature of the carpenter on the wooden window frame from when the arch was built,” said Suzanne. That carpenter was one Walter Graham, listed in the 1880 U.S. Census simply as a "cabinet maker, born 1857, living in Old Fort."
Graham would be pleased with the effort of the current owners to keep his handiwork in its proper context. As part of their restoration efforts, the Nelsons reached out to the Chicago-based US Heritage Group, a firm that offers historically accurate masonry products. Through it, they heard about the work of Hillsborough’s Wayne Thompson and his company, Heritage Restorations.
Thompson, 53, doesn’t advertise. He receives most of his referrals by word of mouth and through Preservation North Carolina and the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
Thompson knew exactly what he was encountering in the Nelsons' property. “It was deteriorated lime putty mortar,” he said. "It has about a 100- to 150-year life cycle, and then it starts deteriorating.”
While that may not sound ideal for buildings that age or older, the mortar is designed to let the brick "move,” thereby minimizing damage to the larger structure, Thompson said. “It’s a softer compression strength than the brick. So we can say it’s doing its job by saving the brick,” he said.
Thompson sent samples of the mortar from 5 E. Main St. to US Heritage, which created a new replacement mortar that matched the original visually and chemically.
“I put back in the original mortar – the same color, the same texture, the same pressure strength,” Thompson said. “We matched it back to the original look of the (mortar) joint. We matched what we didn't take out, so you can't really tell where I've been,” he added.
The heat and frost cycles of more than 100 years in Western Carolina extracted their toll on the Old Fort building. Thompson inspected and repaired every mortar joint as needed, he said. He removed deteriorated parts and washed the building to take anything out of the joint that he was going to apply mortar to. That included any residual dirt and dust that could compromise the newly formed bond.
Thompson’s work in August took about eight days. “We did the façade on the front – the street side of the building," he said. "We (removed) the deteriorated mortar joints, replaced the mortar with the original mortar and finished them to look like the mortar built in the late 1800s.”
Thompson is currently working on a building in Southport on the North Carolina coast that dates back to 1754. It also contains lime putty mortar, used in construction pretty much up until 1927, he said. "This particular building was shelled by the British in 1776 who came ashore at the Cape Fear River,” he said.
Asked whether if anything about the Old Fort job stood out compared to the hundreds of others he’s done in the past quarter century, he described a place rather than building.
“Very relaxing, just because of the location," he said of Old Fort. "It was a nice place to be. Even though I was doing a lot of work, it felt like being on vacation.”
The new putty in the building will hold up for the next century and beyond, he said.