January 16, 2013

Old ship beams find new uses in Massachusetts

A cache of wood believed to be pre-Civil War ship parts is, bit by bit, being routed to respectful uses.

By GEORGE BARNES Telegram & Gazette

ATHOL, Mass. – If wood could talk, the old beams in Thomas Mann's lumber yard would sound like a chatty ship's bosun.

Tom Mann
click image to enlarge

In this Jan. 4, 2013 photo, Tom Mann, of T.S. Mann Lumber, stands near a 300 year old oak beam at his shop in Athol, Mass. The beam was dug up near Boston Harbor where the Spaulding Rehab Center is being built. Mann has been commissioned to create a bench for the center. (AP Photo/Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Tom Rettig)

They are gnarly, tough and interesting.

"They are nearly bulletproof," Mann said.

Mann, owner of Mann Lumber Co., has a big pile of dark-colored beams in his yard that are unlike other salvaged materials he has collected for resale.

First of all, these beams are not his. They belong to Partners HealthCare, the parent company of Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

The beams are special in part because they are probably at least 300 years old and were buried in the former Charlestown Naval Yard before the Civil War, possibly to preserve them for use in repairing sailing vessels.

They were discovered when the company started construction on a new Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital on one of the parcels at the former naval yard.

"When they went to build a new waterfront hospital, they discovered lots and lots of them buried in the former naval yard," Mann said.

Mann has had the timbers for two years, waiting for Partners HealthCare to decide what to do with them. Only recently has he gotten the green light to start a project: a two-piece bench.

SIGNIFICANCE GRASPED

When the wood was discovered, Mann said, the owners immediately grasped the importance of what they found.

He said the beams are pieces of seafaring history. When ships were built, he said shipyards often kept duplicate pieces of wood to repair any damage.

The beams are all numbered, as if they were part of an inventory the Navy was keeping before the era of wooden ships ended.

Partners HealthCare chose not to just sell it off, giving about 140 pieces to Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea in Mystic, Conn., and keeping the rest to do something to honor the wood and its history.

"They knew they had to do something with it," he said.

Mann said the wood is live oak, an evergreen oak found in the South. For wooden ships the wood was much sought after, because the unusual grain makes the wood extremely hard.

"It also grows curved, which makes it good for shipbuilding," Mann said.

BACK TO THE SEA, ON A SHIP

Once the company figured out that the large logs were for building and repairing old sailing vessels, the company gave three-quarters of them to the Mystic museum, which is in the middle of restoring the world's last surviving wooden whaling vessel, the Charles W. Morgan.

The vessel is undergoing a $10 million restoration. The timbers, which are in remarkably good condition, considering they have been buried since the mid-1800s, are the same type of wood used to build the Morgan in 1841.

The wood was a bonanza for the Mystic, Conn., ship museum, which had taken to reclaiming live oaks that had fallen for some reason, including many trees that were blown down by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

HOSPITAL MULLS USE – FOR YEARS

"The hospital kept 25 percent of the wood so it could be put to some reuse," Mann said.

But finding an eventual reuse involved two years of the hospital building project's architects accepting and rejecting designs that would not work in some way with the overall design or would be a problem to create out of the wood.

The ideas included making furniture for offices for the hospital, or installing it in some way into the design of the building.

For two years, designs were put forward that were just not what the hospital wanted.

"They kept trying to come up with designs instead of letting the wood decide what it wants to have done," Mann said.

(Continued on page 2)

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