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‘Dentistry’ saves the Alexander Blockhouse
The drill whines as it pierces decay and chunks of rot are ripped from the gaping wound.
The volunteer laborer lifts his mask and peers inside the void. Some wood rot remains.
He shutters his mask and presses the tool into the crumbling structure. More saw dust flies into the air and bits of wood fall onto the grass below the scaffolding he is perched upon.
Time and the shifting seasons have ravaged the Alexander Blockhouse in Coupeville - and have also made it a perfect candidate for historic preservation.
And also for some new techniques.
The preservation crew is trying to preserve the exterior of the log structure, while removing the wood rot that has ravaged the insides of the buildings walls.
“This process is a lot like dentistry,” said Dr. Harrison Goodall, a heritage building surveyor who has volunteered his expertise to create and implement the plan to save the historic structure from deterioration. “A dentist wouldn’t go in and pull a tooth because it has a cavity. He would try to go in and drill it out and fill it in.”
And the process that Goodall and his fellow volunteers from the Central Whidbey Lion’s Club will follow is much the same – removing the damaged parts while trying to keep as much of the original intact.
“Some might say to go in and just tear out whole sections,” Goodall said. “But we are trying to save the past. This building deserves to be around – infinitely.”
But like a dentist’s approach to a decayed tooth, sometimes more aggressive measures are necessary. For example, in the back of the structure hidden from street view, the crew is doing the historical preservation equivalent of putting in a crown.
A matching grant of $1,500 from the Ebey’s Forever Fund will help the Island County Historical Society and Museum pay for this project. The total cost of the project, including the in-kind donations will be about $3,500.
The blockhouse, built around 1855, sits nestled between the Island County Historical Society and Museum building and canoe shed on Northwest Alexander Street. The blockhouse is one of four surviving in Central Whidbey.
The volunteer crew will spend the next several Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays taking off the decay and getting as close as possible to good wood. An epoxy will then be applied to stabilize any remaining decay and prevent it from spreading further. The wooden faces will then be placed.
Even the replacement logs carry a bit of history. This Spring the Coupeville Lion’s Club had assisted in restoring the Crockett Blockhouse, and some of the timbers - although damaged - were salvaged from the structure and will be used as facing for the Alexander Blockhouse.
The wood for both blockhouses had been hand-hewn with an ax – a difficult technique that few, if any, possess today.
Posters explaining the process are on display at the block house, but the process won’t be as easy as the signs make it appear.
“It won’t be as neat and orderly,” Goodall said. “This is not your typical carpentry.”