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P.E.I’s historic Province House undergoing a major facelift

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The site of the first meeting of the Fathers of Confederation that led to the birth of Canada is getting a major facelift.

Province House, a national historic site which has served as the Prince Edward Island legislature since 1847, is undergoing the first phase of a three-phase project to repair and restore the sandstone structure.

Water infiltration through cracked mortar joints on the roof and window sills have caused structural damage to the walls and foundation which has resulted in the building’s closure since 2015.

The imposing three-storey Greek Revival building’s mass masonry walls are up to 40 inches thick, but many sections are in "poor shape," says Greg Shaw, a project leader with Parks Canada, which has teamed up with Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) to oversee the project to completion in 2020.

Montreal-based DFS Architecture was retained in 2015 to identify priority work based on structural, health and safety as well as building envelope issues.

Quinan Construction Ltd. of Orillia, Ont. was awarded the $8.7-million phase one contract earlier this spring which includes site preparation such as interior shoring and the erection of "a large steel exoskeleton around the building," says Tim Chandler, a senior project manager at PSPC.

Quinan’s work includes removing the 1840s wood windows and doors, most of which can be restored and then reinstalled, says Chandler.

"I think there is a sense that wood at the time was such a high quality and the craftsmanship has allowed them to stand the test of time," he says. "We’re looking to give them some TLC to preserve them well into the future."

The steel exoskeleton being installed will support the loads from the roof down to the foundations, allowing for repairs and rebuilding of exterior masonry in phase two, Chandler explains.

To be tendered later this year, phase two will include dismantling and cataloging the exterior Pictou sandstone walls and the Island stone foundations, he adds.

The stones will be repaired on the steel exoskeleton to minimize possible damage through transport.

"By and large we hope to replace all of the Pictou stones in their original position," he says.

The inner wythe comprised of Island stone on the north and south sides of the building has extensive water damage and will be replaced with brick — a practical alternative to the stone which would have had to be imported, says Shaw.

The Island stone foundations supporting the front and rear porticos that deteriorated over time due to weather will be replaced with concrete through an intricate shoring operation, says Chandler.

Also in phase two, the roof structure, which is comprised of large wood trusses supporting board sheathing and slate shingles with cooper details, will see water shedding improvements and new insulation.

The same slate and copper materials will be used "to maintain the important character-defining elements," says Chandler, adding universal accessibility features on the exterior will be installed.

The building’s mechanical/electrical systems will be updated to comply with the building code.

Chandler notes that the interior walls will remain insulation-free.

"We’re conscious of not wanting to change the dynamics of the building," he says.

Adding insulation to mass masonry walls may cause problems to historic buildings.

"There are a lot of reasons why a mass masonry wall does work and doesn’t require modern insulation. It can absorb moisture and release it slowly and it has its own insulation properties," he explains.

Shaw says most of the original beams and wood for windows and doors is from virgin timber stands in P.E.I. but some of the wood features and other building materials were imported from Nova Scotia or further.

He says the team is investigating where the materials are from — some might have been imported from the Caribbean and Great Britain through a "trade triangle" that was operating in the 1860s.

Shaw’s history working on Province House dates back to 1983 when he was hired as a technical officer for Parks Canada.

"After a while maybe you get numb to the fact this is such a significant building to the history of Canada. It is nice to see it being preserved and protected for our future generations," he adds.

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