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Cost to save Milton blacksmith shop could be $400,000

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Neil Johnson
April 11, 2014

MILTON—The oldest building in Milton, and probably the first in the U.S. made of lime grout, is crumbling to ruin.

No, it's not the Milton House.

It's the city's former blacksmith shop, the squat, square outbuilding just south of the Milton House.

The Milton Historical Society, which owns the old blacksmith shop, says the building is in critical need of repairs. The price tag could be as high as $350,000 or $400,000, according to the historical society.

The bulk of that cost would be to shore up and resurface the original lime grout, which workers improperly repaired with concrete and painted over with white swimming pool sealant in the 1950s.

That's the last time significant work was done on the building, which Milton founder Joseph Goodrich built in 1840, four years before he built the Milton House inn.   

A historic renovation contractor who quoted project costs says the building needed proper repairs five years ago. The historical society hopes to secure grants and matching funds to start repairs this summer or fall.

“It can't be done soon enough. They (the contractor) told us they're surprised it's even standing still,” said Cori Olson, executive director of the Milton Historical Society and the Milton House.

Goodrich built the blacksmith shop as a model structure to test lime grout—an early form of concrete—that he'd developed using lime from a local quarry.

“He wanted to see if it worked before he used it to build the Milton House,” Olson said.

That makes the shop likely the oldest building in Milton. Perhaps more significant, it's likely the oldest lime grout building in the country, Olson said.

It was used as a blacksmith shop from the 1880s until about 1935. During the 1950s, it housed a laundromat and later a bait shop. The Milton Historical Society later bought it, but the group hasn't done anything with it, other than use it to store old blacksmith equipment.

It's not part of Milton House tours, although the historical society hopes it could be after repairs.

Now, the inside of the building is rife with rotting grout and small piles of bat guano. The interior walls of the 1,000-square-foot building have large cracks and pits where chunks of grout have crumbled out.

One side of the building has a small hole where weeds grow through and rainwater dumps inside. 

Patching some of the holes are old gobs of concrete slathered in by work crews in the 1950s. Milton Historical Society Board President Tom Sveum said crews never should have used modern concrete for repairs because it actually eats away the original lime grout.

Perhaps worse, crews in the 1950s repainted the building's exterior with white swimming pool sealant. The paint has trapped moisture inside the building for years, and that's accelerated breakup of the grout.

“It's like cancer that's rotted the building from the inside out,” Sveum said.

Crews also had replaced a few grout walls with concrete block and installed a concrete ceiling in a small portion of the building. That ceiling now is crumbling. In some parts of the building, crews buried metal rebar in the walls to shore them up.

Olson said the only thing that's saved the building from total ruin is a steel roof installed in the 1980s. That's the last work anyone has done there.

Sveum is not sure if the improper repairs were well-intentioned yet wrongheaded or slipshod. Prior owners made similar faulty repairs to the Milton House and the original log cabin homestead behind it.

It cost the historical society $135,000 four years ago to remove concrete that crews poured between the cabin's logs and replace it with the original grout that Goodrich used.

“It apparently got to the point that people forgot the difference between the grout Goodrich used and concrete. It's not the same. When they did the repairs, they just didn't seem to know the difference anymore,” Sveum said.

Between bad repairs and the fact that the building's been largely untouched for 60 years, the cost to save the blacksmith shop has mounted. Renovations could top $250,000 to $300,000, Olson and Sveum said.

The bulk of work will involve crews pulling out bad grout and concrete patches, then repatching and completely resurfacing the walls with lime grout from the same local pit that Goodrich used 175 years ago. 

Crews will have to be trained to work the limestone grout, which has to be mixed in Chicago and shipped back to Milton. Then crews will paint the building inside and out. This time, nobody plans to use swimming pool sealant as paint, Sveum said.

Per square foot, the work will total about twice the cost of building a new-construction, ranch-style home, according to national construction cost estimates.

The project also would involve trenching around the building, which was built with footings sunk two feet in the ground. And crews also will install drainage and new surface to the historical society parking lot 

That work could boost the total project bill to $400,000, Olson said.

The historical society has raised about $5,000 for repairs, but it's spent much of that money on project designs, Olson said. She's working to find matching grants as large as $200,000, which she hopes could couple with local private donations.

Olson said it's easy to blame the condition of the blacksmith shop on old, bad repairs, yet she acknowledged the historical society “forgot” about the shop in the last decade. It instead focused on repairs and an addition to the Milton House and fixes to the cabin. Unlike the blacksmith shop, those buildings are used in historical society tours. 

Olson said she regrets the shop has gotten short shrift, and she hopes it's not too late to reverse the damage.

“We've got half a dozen outbuildings that aren't the Milton House. You forget about them. They get lost in the shuffle. You can't let that happen,” she said.



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