Deferred maintenance for budget savings might be a prudent short-term measure Wilton has used in the past, but when a column collapses off the front facade of Wilton’s Town Hall, that’s a whole other level of “needs to be addressed urgently.”
That’s what happened last week when one of the six two-story, 90-year-old wood columns at the building’s front entrance broke away from the overhang above the steps and fell back against the building.
“The bottom was severely rotted,” explained Chris Burney, Wilton’s Director of Public Works, Facilities and Energy Management. “There was no wood left, just fibers.”
Burney had known the wood on some of the columns had some rot at the bottom, but the condition of this particular column was clearly extreme.
But with so many Town Hall employees working from home during the pandemic, Burney included, it was a surprise for him to see the column had deteriorated badly enough to lead to its collapse.
Burney has done some basic tests on the other columns to determine if they’re in as bad–or worse–shape.
“We haven’t found anywhere near that same level of decay, which makes me feel better, but I still want to see inside. And then I still need to get an evaluation as to whether or not they are structural or decorative,” Burney explained.
That evaluation means bringing in a structural engineer to do essentially what amounts to laparoscopic surgery on the remaining columns, putting a probe with a tiny camera through a small hole to assess the internal condition without destroying the column.
“Hopefully by the end of next week, we will know what level of decay is on the inside of the other columns and do I need to proactively get plans to remove them. And then if I do remove them, is the building still going to be safe? So that’s the plan for the next week or two,” Burney said.
While he suspects the columns are simply decorative, nonetheless, he’s amazed at the degree of workmanship that went into building the column.
“It’s like a super barrel. There’s an internal layer and an outside layer. They’re all glued together. The columns are made of Poplar and on the inside layer, they used a dovetail joint, which had a strip of Walnut in it to provide additional strength to it. I was just so impressed with it,” Burney said.
He was able to locate some of the original drawings from 1930, but they’re too faded to be reliable. And Burney says it’s too premature to even think about what kind of cost is attached to replacing it, let alone how difficult would it be to have a similar one built to match the original column’s craftsmanship.
“The wood that creates the round part is about five or six inches thick, two layers and very accurate and carefully put together. It’s just like making a barrel where all the little angles have to be right. If we’re going to replace the column, my first thought would be, if it was structural to put up a simple masonry column and then wrap it with a fiberglass foam column. We saved some of the fancy scroll from the very top, so we could have somebody replicate it with fiberglass,” Burney said. That would most likely save time and money, and result in a column that wouldn’t be subject to rot and weather decay.
“That’s my initial thought if I have to replace them. But, you know, that may change.”
Most importantly right now, the building is secure and safe.
“That access way to Town Hall hasn’t been used in about a year. Everybody comes in the back door where the dropbox is. And by such time that we intend to open it up, we’ll have a permanent resolution to whether the columns are structural or not, and do we replace the one that’s fallen? There are options, obviously from replacing every column to taking every column out. And I don’t know where the answer is, probably somewhere in the middle,” Burney added.