A team of students from Holland College in Charlottetown is taking part in the restoration of a national heritage treasure: Province House, Prince Edward Island’s seat of government.
The landmark hosted the Charlottetown Conference in 1864, which led to the Confederation of Canada three years later.
“If we were restoring windows in someone’s house it would be pretty neat and engaging but restoring windows in a national monument is phenomenal,” says Josh Silver, manager and instructor of the college’s Heritage Retrofit Carpentry program.
“From the perspective of an instructor there is no better building (learning) tool for students.”
The students are tackling two of the Regency-style building’s 101 windows as part of their curriculum.
Flanking the front entry to the structure, the six-over-six wood windows are about eight-feet-tall-by-three-and-a-half feet wide.
Not a straightforward job, the work is being conducted under the watchful eye of Parks Canada PEI, overseer to the National Historic Site’s multimillion-dollar restoration program now underway.
Silver says the starting point for students, after carefully removing the windows from the building, was to disassemble them in the school shop (each window has about 40 wood parts) and strip them of old paint.
Several coats of raw boiled linseed oil primer, spaced weeks apart to cure, were applied before the final coat of a linseed oil-based paint. The colours matched the original paint hues.
Panes were reinstalled with period-appropriate putty.
The only upgrade to the windows is modern weather seals, hidden within the wood sashes from the public eye.
“There is heavy, heavy scrutiny from the federal level for what we’re doing,” Silver points out, noting the students’ work has been checked and vetted at every step.
To date their work has been praised.
It is not the first project for Silver’s students at Province House.
Three years ago they helped remove, catalogue and store doors, the building’s 101 windows and much of the woodwork.
One of Silver’s students, Jenna MacNeill, was hired to manage the cataloging process for the project which is being managed by Ottawa-based architectural restoration consultant Heritage Grade.
Upcoming work, the reinstallation of about 200 pieces of interior trim around windows, will bring new challenges for students.
While many of the students enrolled in the heritage carpentry program each year are from P.E.I., some come from other provinces, the U.S. and as far away as the Bahamas.
Raised in an historic house only a stone’s throw from Province House, graduate student Oliver Tweel got into the field to help preserve the island’s heritage.
“This program is invaluable and seeing more interest in it is good because the shortage of skills (old-world craftspeople) is only going to increase.”
Tweel hopes to get hired by Heritage Grade to help restore the building’s other 99 windows.
Silver, who has been teaching the program since its inception 11 years ago, says many heritage buildings in Canada are “at their most fragile state” now because they don’t meet new energy regulations and standards.
The college’s program organizers had that in mind when they set a third of course content to energy efficiency.
“We do applied research projects through the college to try and attack the problem” and get financial help through federal and other government level energy grants, he says.
Silver applauds property manager Parks Canada PEI for involving the restoration school in the building’s restoration because it provides 16 new students annually with practical experience at a time when many old-world restoration craft skills are vanishing.
“We’re teaching skills and developing a labour force for the present and the future.”