PROSPECT, Maine — Faced with a never-ending workload, it might be easy to be a defeatist.
When you’re tasked with maintaining Fort Knox, construction of which began in 1844, the job truly is never done. Leon Seymour — director of Friends of Fort Knox, which operates and manages the National Historic Landmark — said the fort basically began falling apart more more than 140 years ago.
“It’s never going to end here,” he said Tuesday. “The construction stopped in 1869, and once you stop construction, deterioration begins.”
But when it comes to maintaining the historic and structural integrity of the fort, Seymour and company are anything but defeatist. This spring, the fort is focusing on replacing windows and rehabilitating some masonry. The window work already has begun, and the masonry work is scheduled to begin this spring, Seymour said. All told, both jobs will cost about $75,000, he said.
Whenever possible, construction, materials and renovation techniques as similar to those used in the mid-19th century are used, Seymour said. Historical accuracy is a paramount concern at the fort, which is not only a state park, but a National Historical Landmark, the highest federal status for a historic building.
At the fort on Tuesday, Michael El-Hajj, general manager for R.L. White & Son, which is undertaking the window repair, consulted a sketch of period-appropriate details for the wooden parts of the windows. The Maine Historic Preservation Commission researched other period windows in the area to come up with a design.
“A lot of the historic features of a window are the profiles of the muntins and sash,” El-Hajj said. Two workers from his company were removing and cataloging each window sash and pane of glass. When possible, the older “bubble glass” in the fort will be retained, El-Hajj said, rather than replaced.
“The first project we had was tackling the roof,” Seymour said, describing a nearly $900,000 roof restoration project.
“In the ’90s, the roof had been compromised because in the ’60s, the state had put asphalt on the roof and removed the original sod. Because of Maine winter’s freeze-thaw cycle, that asphalt was letting a lot of moisture permeate the masonry, so it was actually becoming unstable. So in the late ’90s, the asphalt was replaced and sod was put back on the roof.”
Seymour said Maine’s weather is the primary enemy of the fort. As water seeps into the joints between the bricks and large granite blocks that make up the bulk of the fort’s structure, salt and other minerals leach out. The mortar can become brittle and crack or, worse, fall out entirely.
The specifications of masonry repointing are an example of the delicate balance of historical accuracy and modern best-practices. Through the state Bureau of Parks and Lands and the historic commission, a sample of mortar in the fort was analyzed last summer, Seymour said.
That analysis resulted in a list of ingredients and percentages that a mason will use to replicate the mortar mix used in the fort’s construction. But it’s not historical fidelity for its own sake, according to Earl Shettleworth, director of the preservation commission.
Shettleworth said that mortars used today dry faster and to a harder consistency than those used in the mid-19th century. Introducing modern mortar into the fort could cause structural damage, he said.
“That’s the real issue here,” he said Tuesday. “It’s not that we’re trying to carefully replicate for the sake of replication, but rather because the material was part of an overall building system or scheme that was correct for the construction of that time.”
Contractors could work year-round on masonry at the fort alone, Seymour said. It’s the biggest job at the site, and he said “you don’t have to look very far” from any point in the fort to find dry, cracked, nonexistent or weed-ridden mortar.
A few years ago, Seymour said, an emergency repair job was called for when bricks were literally falling out of the vaulted ceilings. Most of the brickwork in the fort has been stabilized since then, he said, and now the Friends are focusing on the massive granite blocks that make up the fort’s exterior walls.
But weather isn’t the only enemy of the fort’s construction. Seymour said that of the fort’s roughly 85,000 visitors per year, some are seekers of illicit souvenirs.
“People will actually come and pick bricks out of the walls,” he said. “It’s beyond my comprehension.”
Despite the seemingly never-ending mountain of work always awaiting around the next corner, Seymour was upbeat about the Friends’ efforts. He noted that restoration and renovation work last year ended with the opening of one of the fort’s powder magazines to the public. That site had never been open before, he said.
“We understand how important Fort Knox is to the people of Maine,” he said. “There’s memories that span generations here. We take the responsibility very seriously.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.