Courthouse Restoration a Labor of Love

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David Weston walked up as I wandered unaccompanied through the Franklin County Courthouse in Mt. Vernon last week, taking photographs of the final stages of the restoration of the 1912 building. Once I explained why I was taking photos, for a story in the paper, he enthusiastically conducted a top-to-bottom tour of this grand old building. Weston, 57, is the superintendent on the project, a man clearly in love with his work.

“People ask when I’m going to retire. When I die, that’s when,” he said. Weston is from Long Island, N.Y. and sports two gold earrings in each lobe and a scraggly beard. We hit it off well because as a semi-retired amateur furniture builder, I appreciate the painstaking craftsmanship he and his workers are putting into this project. Weston showed me a stack of black walnut lumber that he milled from a tree in Marion County, now drying on racks and ready to be planed. I told him about my cache of walnut bought over the years out of barns around East Texas. I keep hauling that lumber around, thinking someday I will again have time and space to build furniture. That was an instant bond, two fellow lovers of black walnut.

Weston is a collector. He pulled out the first issue of Fine Woodworking from 1976. That’s one of the premier woodworking magazines, one to which I subscribed to for a decade or so. Like him, I have dozens of woodworking magazines squirreled away in my small shop. Against one wall in his eclectic office in the old Wells Lamont glove factory behind the courthouse, several vintage remote-powered model planes sit in boxes. He pulls out copies of a blueprint of the intricacies of using a framing square, with complicated formulas that are way above my math skills. He collects old framing squares as well and plans to use some of the walnut to encase them for hanging on the wall.

As can be seen by the photos in this issue, the Franklin County courthouse restoration is just magnificent. MMI specializes in historical restorations and has brought a number of Texas courthouses back to their original splendor. One of my favorites is the Harrison County courthouse in Marshall, which MMI also restored about five years ago. When one walks into these buildings, one feels transported back to a simpler time, what Weston calls the “gilded age” of craftsmanship. I picture Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird” delivering his impassioned defense in  such a courtroom as Franklin County’s. MMI’s job is to stay as true to the original design as possible, which is why they mill their own parts for all the woodwork that had to be replaced in the building.

Weston, who has been on this job about a year, shows up about 6 a.m. and leaves about dark, around 8 or so. By now he knows every inch of this three-story building, from the segregated bathrooms outside the basement that black people had to use before the civil rights movement, to the room with chicken wire encased in the glass windows, which served as a vault. The vault door is now being restored as well.

We climb up a narrow ladder through an opening in a ceiling on the third  floor to take a look at the metal ball that is struck to chime when the clock strikes the hour. Or at least it will when everything is finished, and the clocks are synchronized. The bell is still housed in the original hand-hewed lumber.

Weston leads me up another set of very narrow ladder steps to the top of the cupola, where he proudly shows off the mechanical clock mechanism, now also restored. Somebody is going to have to climb up here once a week and turn the metal crank to wind the clock. Maybe the county commissioners can take turns, but it is going to take someone pretty agile — and skinny.

It is rare these days to meet people who take such pride in their work, whatever it is. For Weston, restoration is truly a labor of love, and he and his crew pay attention to every detail. His approach is simple. “If there is a mistake, I take the blame. If it is done right, we all share the credit.”

That’s the servant approach to management, and it truly works when you have people who care about what they do — no matter the job. It certainly helps to love your work, something else we had in common. As he said, just before we parted ways, “Anyone who tells you they’re bored… They’re boring people.”

Amen, David. Thanks to him and the folks with whom he works, the good people of Mount Vernon are going to have a courthouse for the ages.

You can see photos from the restoration by going to dailytribune.net Saturday.


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