Shoring Up an Italianate Tower

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The original circa-1830 house got a fashionable update in 1877, gaining a high-style Italianate tower and touches of Eastlake ornamentation.

The original circa-1830 house got a fashionable update in 1877, gaining a high-style Italianate tower and touches of Eastlake ornamentation.

In 1877, Benjamin Stanley Freeman, a wealthy homeowner in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, expanded and updated his family's classic 1830 Colonial house to better reflect his status and the architectural style of the day, transforming it into a dramatic and ornate Italianate. He added porches, bay windows, large-scale cresting on the roofline, and a striking 50'-tall central tower.

The tower is what first drew my wife, Melanie, and me to the property a couple of years ago. We'd gotten hooked on restoration while we worked on our own 19th-century home, and wanted to try bringing back another historic property to sell to an appreciative family. The iconic tower seemed to whisper, "Please restore me." It looked stable enough from the outside, although we could see some raking and twisting from certain angles. We also noticed an array of water stains inside the tower near the windows and on the ceiling, but we were so in love with the Italianate beauty that we bought the house, crossing our fingers that any structural problems would be minor. We were wrong.

Years of undetected water damage had thoroughly rotted the tower's walls and structural members.

Years of undetected water damage had thoroughly rotted the tower's walls and structural members.

After purchasing the home and removing two damaged floors and some interior tower walls, we learned that our tower had seven rotted support beams—the result of years of undetected water damage. Worse still, our initial attempt to assess and repair damage by demolishing the ceilings and floors only compounded the situation—the tower was now leaning, Pisa-style, toward one side, and in such fragile condition that it was in danger of collapsing with the next New England storm. We had to find a way to save it.

Our designer told us the easiest option would be to completely demolish the tower, but as lovers and restorers of Victorian homes, we refused. The 50' tower defined this house; preserving it was critical to maintaining the home's architectural style and history. The designer also suggested removing the tower to repair off-site, but this idea was a budget-buster. Luckily, we found a local restoration contractor, Eric Ayre of Top Cat Construction, who figured out a way to rebuild and restore the tower on site.

Repairs & Reinforcements

To begin, Eric and his team of talented carpenters built temporary floors out of 2x10s. The new floors gave the walls lateral support, and they acted as a staging area for the construction crew. Next, the team back-braced the walls with lineal 2x6s installed as wall-to-floor braces on an angle. This made for a great temporary support system, but it was one the team had to continually rip out, move, and rebuild in order to access new areas within the confines of a 10' by 10' space.

Atop the finished tower's interior, 4x8 collars placed horizontally (and plated and through-bolted) add extra support.

Atop the finished tower's interior, 4x8 collars placed horizontally (and plated and through-bolted) add extra support.

The next steps involved sistering walls with 2x6s run floor-to-ceiling. Any rotted studs were cut out and replaced with doubled-up 2x6s. After everything was shored up and the walls were supported, the team worked on replacing the old beams. Most contractors simply take an old beam out and put a new one in exactly the same way, but Eric's team used a different technique. As they removed each old beam using sawzalls and skill saws (or chisels where the saws couldn't reach), they overcut into existing studs so they could make a new level line on the wall studs. This allowed for a new 4x6 and a plate (a pressure-treated 2x6 turned on the flat), which was installed beneath the 4x6. The beam sistering continued up to the roof in this fashion.

To further brace the massive slate roof, Eric's team also created a new lateral support system in the uppermost portion of the tower. The team took four 4x8 beams, notched them where they intersected, carriage-bolted them through where they sistered, and placed angle irons at the crossings. The resulting support structure looks like a pound sign atop the tower's interior.

Craftsmen stripped and painted exterior decorative elements, and restored windows.

Craftsmen stripped and painted exterior decorative elements, and restored windows.

Because all of the original dimensional beams and studs had varying measurements and thicknesses, replacements had to be stick built and customized for placement into each location. To help guard against future water damage, the team used pressure-treated lumber throughout. (This was possible because the tower isn't considered a main living space.)

Once the new beams were in place, it was time for the team to permanently remove all of the temporary supports. It was the moment of truth. Despite knowing that the new engineering was sound, some unsettling moments still ensued when the tower creaked and groaned as the weight shifted from the temporary supports to the new beams. When the new beams held, we knew we'd achieved our goal: We had saved the tower.