Landscapes, Streetscapes, Parks & Garden Fixtures

Fence Me In

Re-creating an ornamental wood fence--from nothing more than an old photo.

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By Marieke Cassia Gartner
In 1879, the Emlen Physick Estate on 1048 Washington Street in Cape May, NJ, was completed. Differing from its neighbors, the estate, attributed to Frank Furness, was designed in the Stick style, instead of the Italianate, Gothic or Mansard designs common elsewhere around the city. Following Dr. Physick’s death in 1916, it was sold many times and fell into a state of disrepair. In the 1960s, it was acquired by developers who planned to tear it down in order to put tract housing on its grounds. The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC) was formed in 1970 to save it. After accomplishing its goal, MAC opened the estate as Cape May’s only Victorian house museum in 1976.

Near the end of 2002, MAC began a restoration and ADA-accessibility project on the grounds of the estate. Concluded in 2004, the project achieved its goal.The estate now matches its 1890 appearance, and the first floor is wheelchair accessible. But at the project’s completion, something was still missing. In old photographs, an ornamental fence is visible in front of the property. MAC decided to re-create it, using 750 pickets, 25 posts and more than 600 feet in rails to complete the more than 300-ft.-long ornamental wood fence.

Because all the parts were manufactured on-site, one of the biggest challenges MAC faced was getting enough skilled labor to help with the fabrication. “You can’t just take a standard woodworker and throw him into this,” says Jerry Karacz, director of maintenance at MAC. The initial plan was to use volunteers to build the fence, so MAC sent out samples for a trial run. “The skill level just wasn’t good enough,” he says, “so I decided to take it in house and train our staff.” This type of project is typical of what is being done in the field today, he adds, but because craftspeople want to be specialized, they don’t go through rigorous training that would include everything from knowing how to dig the hole for the posts to the finish work. “That’s lost today,” he says, “except for the old timers. Re-creating historic pieces takes skill, experience and training.”

MAC started with an original photograph of the property with the fence that shows all of the profiles. The architect who worked on restoring the main estate in the mid-1970s, A.J. O’Sullivan of A.J. O’Sullivan Architects, Engineers & Planners, in Cape May, included the fence in his drawings. The gate, although not in the photograph, was extant at a different location. Quarter-in. patterns were made from a print, and then a full-size relief of the piece was made.

The fence was built in 20-ft. sections, with wood provided by Cape May Courthouse, NJ-based Tri Country Building Supplies. Mahogany was used for the pickets, and treated lumber for the support pieces, including the retaining brackets, or stringers, and posts. “Mahogany doesn’t rot,” says Karacz, “so it was chosen for its longevity.” The 6x6-in. posts are handmade and have sleeves covering them that are rounded out with profiles in the sides and then trimmed out. “Historically, a solid post would have been buried,” he explains, “but the sleeves provide durability. Every five years, maintenance – painting and sealing – will need to be done for weatherproofing.”

MAC has its own wood shop that cut the pieces. For the pickets, a three-stage process was used, and special jigs were made for uniformity. The first step was to drill all the holes. Then the center reliefs were sawn out, and, finally, the scroll cutting profiles were completed. Sanding and prepping for paint followed..

To determine the color of the fence, which was reproduced from a black-and-white photograph, MAC turned to the house it enclosed. “We worked off the historic colors of the house – slate gray and light sky gray trimmed with red,” says Karacz. “The pattern of color came from the architect.

“This is a fun project,” he adds. “It was good to see the impact on the people when the first section of the fence and the gate went up. Once local residents saw it, they realized it was worth an investment.”

Click here for a list of suppliers of fences and gates