Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Japanese Carpentry Classes for 2015 (update)

On June 10th I posted up a notice about some Japanese carpentry classes scheduled for October of this year. I've had a good number of people contact me as a result, which has been great, and I wanted to post up an update. Perhaps some out there are interested and have been sitting on the fence, wanting to see if things are going ahead before committing. Well, you need not hesitate any more!

The course series is as follows:

1) tool set up and sharpening (3 days)
2) basic joinery (3 days)
3) the hopper (1 day); prerequisite is to read TAJCD Volume I
4) the mortise and tenoned hopper (3 days); students required to have read TAJCD Volume II
5) the splayed leg stool/table (5 days); prerequisite is to read TAJCD Volume IV
6) the askew common rafter (5 days); prerequisite is to read TAJCD Volume IV
7) regular hip corner I (6 days); prerequisite is TAJCD Volume V
8) regular hip corner II (6 days)

Based on the preferences expressed by those who have contacted me so far, I can say that courses #1 2, and 3 are definitely looking to go ahead. Course 4 needs one more person to run. With a few months left to go, I am thinking it very likely that course 4 will gain enough participants, as it needs only one more confirmed participant to run. In any case, I can schedule the courses at this point. All classes will be held in my shop in the small town of Leeds, MA.

Here's the class schedule:

1) Tool set up and Sharpening ($525)

Saturday, October 17th through Monday, October 19th. 9:00~5:00 pm each day

So far 7 intending participants.

2) Basic Joinery ($525)

Wednesday, October 21st through Friday October 23rd. 9:00~5:00 pm each day

So far 5 intending participants.

3) Asa-gao Gata (The Hopper) ($175)

October 24th. 9:00~5:00 pm

So far 4 intending participants.

4) The Mortise and Tenoned Hopper ($575)

Sunday, October 25th through Tuesday, October 27th. 9:00~5:00 pm each day

So far 3 intending participants.

--------------------

Just in case a sufficient interest develops over the next month or so, I have provisionally blocked off October 28th through November 1st for the Course #5, on the topic of splayed post construction with compound mortise and tenon joinery.

I've made the courses more or less back-to-back as this will more ideally suit those who have to travel longer distances to reach Western Massachusetts.

Several students have indicated interest in all the courses, so I anticipate that some of these more advanced classes may feature in the 2016 class schedule as more people complete pre-requisites. I am planning to hold these workshops each year at about the same time, all being well.

I will be sending out an email to those who have contacted me so far, relaying the above information, and I will be looking to collect deposits for the courses for which people have expressed interest. Deposits will be 50% of the class, balance due no later than October 1st, and tool lists will be provided to all participants who have made deposits.

If you've been thinking of participating in any of these classes, you now have further information and I hope this tips the scale in favor of you signing up. Please don't hesitate to contact me for further information.

Really looking forward to these courses!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Looking Around Pittsburgh

As mentioned in the previous post, I was looking to share some photos of interesting houses I came across in Pittsburgh.

We visited a historic home which was open for tours, the home of Henry Clay Frick (1849~1919), now part of a larger concern, the Frick Art and Historical Center. Henry Frick grew up in a Mennonite village in Overton PA, and at the age of 21 he realized that certain opportunities presented themselves with respect to bituminous coal. At the age of 21, he borrowed some money and set up a partnership with two cousins and a friend, Frick and Co.. Their company used beehive ovens to turn coal into coke, a fuel which happened to be in great demand by Pittsburgh's burgeoning steel industry. By the age of 30 Henry Frick was a millionaire, and the company of which he became the sole owner, the H.C. Frick and Company, eventually had over 1000 employees.

Henry Frick:


Not, apparently, a man given much to joviality. Indeed, the adjective 'ruthless' is often appended to his name. In 1881, the year Frick married, he made the acquaintance of Andrew Carnegie. Later, H.C. Frick and Company would partner with Carnegie Steel, forming a powerful alliance which dominated the Pittsburgh steel industry. Eventually, this partnership became the US Steel corporation. Carnegie put Frick in charge of his steel operations in the same year.

Frick was a successful businessman, however his name also lives on somewhat in infamy, or not, depending upon your point of view, due to his connection with the Homestead Steel strike of 1892. Homestead Steel, owned by Frick and Carnegie, was the nation's largest producer of steel. In 1892, a labor dispute at the mill escalated into a major event. This was not the first labor conflict at the mill, and earlier strikes there had resulted in gains for the union. The Homestead strike was, in comparison to earlier efforts, more organized and purposeful.

On June 28th of 1892, following unsuccessful negotiations with a union representing a small portion of the total mill workforce - unsuccessful, perhaps, because Frick offered them a cut in pay despite soaring company profits - Frick made the decision to lock out all of the mill's 3800 workers with a stated plan to replace them with non-union employees.

It wasn't that he simply locked out the workers  -that would be a mild understatement - Frick had made plans for battle ahead of time:

A high fence topped with barbed wire, begun in January, was completed and the plant sealed to the workers. Sniper towers with searchlights were constructed near each mill building, and high-pressure water cannons (some capable of spraying boiling-hot liquid) were placed at each entrance. Various aspects of the plant were protected, reinforced or shielded.

The lockout lead the union to surround the mill, which provoked Frick to send 300 Pinkerton Detectives (a private security firm), drawn from New York and Chicago in to break the strike. Initialy, the strikers thought the plain-clothed Pinkerton men were scabs. This confrontation turned into a major battle (more here) over the July 5th to 7th period. Several people were killed, and many were injured. The Pinkerton Detectives lost the battle, however they subsequently received ill treatment at the hands of union workers, which shifted the tide of public sentiment against the workers. Eventually, 7000 troops of the state militia were brought in to disperse the strikers. The Homestead Strike of 1892 was unsuccessful for the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, and was the start of a process of demise for the organization, and a loss of members. It can be said, on the other side of the coin, that the events at Homestead had the effect of discouraging the use of private security forces in resolving labor disputes, and instead encouraged resort to the military and the courts. While Robert Pinkerton told Congress that in the 26 years prior to Homestead his firm had been employed in some 70 strikes against 125,000 strikers, that sort of business pretty much dried up for the company after Homestead. Many states moved to prohibit by law the use of armed guards in settling strikes as a result.

The Carnegie Company came in for heavy criticism afterward, as this account shows:


The 'great expense' mentioned for the militia? It was some $22,000/day; a cost borne of course by US taxpayers.

On July 23rd, an anarchist named Alexander Berkman, who had been avidly following newspaper accounts of the strike, burst into Frick's office and took a couple of shots at Frick with a handgun, and stabbed him several times before being tackled. Frick survived the encounter, and became more entrenched in his anti-labor positions, while Berkman spent the next 14 years in prison. His life story was certainly an eventful one. Berkman, who had no association with the strikers and who had acted without their knowledge in his attempt to assassinate Frick, nevertheless was associated by the public to the strikers, and thereby the cause of organized labor lost considerable public sympathy as a result.

Henry Frick was also involved in another dramatic event a few years preceding the Homestead Strike: The Johnstown Flood. That story is a bit too long to relate here, however a click on the foregoing link should be informative - -or take a gander at this documentary on the Johnstown Flood, which won an Academy Award in 1991:



Not the only disaster avoided by Henry Frick: he and his wife Adelaide had booked tickets to travel back to New York on the inaugural trip of the Titanic in 1912, along with J.P. Morgan. The couple canceled their trip after Adelaide sprained her ankle in Italy and missed the disastrous voyage. Somewhat of a charmed life it would seem.

That is some background on Henry Frick and his life.

The year 1881 was the same year in which Frick and his wife purchased an Italianate-style home at the corner of Penn and South Homewood Avenues, in Pittsburgh's residential East End, a spot which become known as 'Millionaire's Row'.

As an aside, while Pittsburgh is built around a large and beautiful river, the presence of the coal industry along the river banks made the area dirty and polluted. Thus, the poorest denizens had the waterfront property. The wealthy moved up into the hills a bit where the air was cleaner and clearer. It is only in recent years that the usual premium for waterfront property is coming back into place as the city's former poor sections are being gentrified.

The house Frick purchased, for a sum of $25,000, then received a make-over by the architect Andrew Peebles, and was renamed 'Clayton'. A few years later there was a significant expansion made to the structure, overseen by architect Frederick J. Osterling. This is how Clayton looks today:


The look is what might be called a French Chateau style.

Another view:


Some of the stonework in the section facing the camera was not in good condition, although this house has had restoration work done in the early 1990's and in 2013. To fix the stonework would be a major project, as the trouble would appear to originate in the foundation.

The Frick's Clayton House, like the Asa Packer House in Jim Thorpe, is a rare case of a house which contains almost all of it's original interior fittings, furniture, paintings, etc. Frick was a prolific collector of paintings, many of which are on display at another house he used to own in New York, now the Frick Collection.

I toured the house, and as with the Asa Packer residence, interior photography was not allowed. I did manage to find just a very few pictures on the web, and here's one of them:


Some lovely woodwork is found throughout the house, most of which was done in Honduran Mahogany, along with tooled leather wallpaper. Many of the rooms had coffered or paneled ceilings. Overall, like most Victorian-era houses, it makes for a rich scene in nearly every room. Overall, I thought the woodwork was a notch below the Asa Packer House, and perhaps that can be put down to the fact that Asa Packer had apprenticed as a carpenter and had more of an eye for quality - maybe more of a drive to hire the most skilled carpenters he could find. The woodwork in Clayton conveys luxury, perhaps, more than it conveys technical virtuosity.

Sometimes the effect though is a little too much. It's a very richly detailed environment in which to have lived, and I'm not sure how it would feel to spend month after month in such a space.

One room which stood out was the dining room:


It's not easy to make out in the above picture, but to the right of the shot is the base of a fluted mahogany column. What was unusual about these columns was their section profile, which was not a cylinder. Instead, these columns are of a square section with strongly chamfered arrises, featuring entasis as well. I've never come across columns in this form before and they looked really sweet. I pointed out the unusual nature of the form to the docent and she replied that I had been the first to notice that detail.

My favorite space in the house was Henry Frick's personal ensuite bath, which has a curved door and a domed skylight above the tub. It would have been a great place to have a bath, and I wish I could find a picture to show. Definitely check this house out if you are in the area.

I'll conclude this with a part II in another few days. Thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Phasing in Pittsburgh

In the previous post I detailed my visit to the Asa Packer Mansion in Jim Thorpe, PA. Following that adventure, we motored on down to Pittsburgh, where my wife has an elderly relative, for a 4-day stay.

Pittsburgh, the steel city, has a reputation as a place of giant steel mills belching coal soot. It was certainly that way for much of its history, however those mills are long since closed, and Pittsburgh is now part of what is called the rust belt. As such, it has had to work to reinvent itself. I can't say I'm entirely aware of the direction in which Pittsburgh is heading, but it is a pleasant place to visit.

One of the highlights for me was our visit to the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Anytime I come across a botanical garden, especially one with a conservatory, I make it a point to check it out. While a wood nerd for sure, I'm also a bit of a plant geek, though I must confess to vast amounts of ignorance in that regard. I've been to several famous botanic gardens, and I have to say that Phipps is among the best in the country, if not the world. The conservatory is incredibly vast - too much by far to take in in one day. The current exhibit featuring Plants of the Congo was incredibly fascinating, and the rooms with cacti on exhibit simply blew my mind.

Phipps seems to have adequate funding, unlike many public institutions in the US, and has set a mission for itself to be on the cutting edge of sustainable operation. The new conservatory which houses the plants of the Congo exhibit, for example, is net zero energy - pretty impressive for what otherwise is a large glass and metal box.

A recent construction at Phipps is the Center for Sustainable Landscapes. Here's a video put out by Phipps which showcases the building and their forward-thinking approach:



It was a pleasant building to be in - just a nice temperature, cooler than outside yet quiet and peaceful with no a/c system going.

A display in the structure which caught my eye was that of a model section of the building wall, which featured an innovative insulation material, called BioPCM (which stands for Bio Phase Change Mat). This is a type of building envelope material featuring a new (to me) application of a technology, namely phase change material.

BioPCM is configured as a plastic sheet with small pillows filled with soy-based gel:


From the manufacturer:

Phase change materials “PCMs”  use a basic nature of physics, the absorption or release of heat when matter changes from one state to another, to aid in thermal storage. When you warm up a solid material, its temperature rises steadily until it nears its melting point. Then it absorbs a significant amount of heat, but the material does not get warmer, until it fully melts. The process of changing phase from solid to liquid absorbs an enormous amount of energy comparatively to when the material's temperature is changing in either its liquid or solid state.  When you cool down and freeze a liquid, the same process happens in reverse, the temperature remains at the freezing temperature until a significant amount of heat is removed, releasing stored energy and allowing it to freeze (change phase from liquid to solid). This physical interaction with the building environment is beneficial by absorbing excess heat and cooling the space and then releasing this stored heat back at a later time as the temperature drops below the product's Q factor/desired temperature.

There's a lot to like about this product. It is lightweight. It is made in the United States. It is low-tech and passive. It is made from rapidly-renewable and sustainably harvested non-food soy and palm oil byproducts as well as other rapidly renewable plant materials including coconut and soy.  It can meet class A and C fire ratings. It can meet class I, II, or III perm ratings. It works when it is hot outside to keep the building cool, and it works when it is cold outside to keep the building warm. It can be directly applied to conventional light framing with studs 16" on center as a material supplemental to conventional insulation. It does not add significant thickness to a wall. It would not add appreciable weight to a ceiling or roof. It can be used in new builds or retrofits.

Here's a typical installation:



(Image from http://gsdmaterialscollection.tumblr.com/post/13110785188/phase-change-materials)

As noted above, this material is not really insulation as such - it behaves more like a thermal mass wall. The pillows are, in other words, latent heat storage units, engineered to change phase at room temperature. Instead of 12" (say) of concrete or cob, you only need a thin layer of BioPCM  to achieve the same sort of thermal mass effect, where the wall absorbs and releases heat at a rate slower than environment. So, while the outside temperature may cycle up and down in a fairly large range, the phase change material causes the interior temperature to only cycle up and down a minor amount, as this graph shows:



(image from the manufacturer's website)

The 'control' in the above test was an identical structure with a conventional insulation system. The test structure had only one difference in build: the addition of BioPCM. As you can see, with phase change material, the interior temperature only moved through a 4˚ swing while ambient temps varied by 37˚. What this means for the occupants is a more comfortable living/working environment and greatly reduced HVAC costs. One would think that based on the above facts alone, over just a few years the phase change material would easily pay for itself.

BioPCM can easily be combined with other types of insulation materials in a wall or roof - even in floors.

What about durability? Well, the company has had it tested with a temperature cycle that is quite severe by any standard:

  • Begin at 20°C
  • Ramp to -20°C 5 minutes
  • Hold -20°C 20 minutes
  • Ramp to 60°C 10 minutes
  • Hold 60°C 20 minutes
  • Ramp to 20°C 5 minutes

They cycled the material through 23,563 cycles, the equivalent of 87.2 years. When retested for thermal efficiency, the material showed little to no breakdown. Such a long service life means that the payback period for the investment will be relatively short.

So, that looks pretty cool to me - not withstanding the word play. Not sure about pricing of BioPCM, however a few of the green building sites out there were using terms such as "finally there is an affordable phase change material"....

While in Pittsburgh we also took in some interesting architecture - the subject of the next post.

Thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Packing it In

Been a little lax on the blogging lately. Mostly working on recuperation. My left elbow got irritated after the gate project and the course with Ford Hallam, and, well, needed some dedicated attention. I've been dealing with lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow) for 11 years now, and for most of those years i've managed to keep it under control. When it has flared up, icing and anti-inflammatories have tended to be sufficient. When you go through a sequence of events which are tough on that area however, it is surprisingly easy to slip down what might be described as a pit of sand. You're down at the bottom trying to heal the injury, but the climb up to health is really tough - the slightest misstep and you re-irritate the tendon, thus sliding back down to the bottom. A movie that comes to mind: "Woman in the Dunes". Haven't seen it, you say? Well, what are you waiting for? -  it's a classic of Japanese film from the 1950's with a place on my shelf... (don't say I didn't warn you)...



Actually, having lateral epicondylitis is no laughing matter, especially for those of us that work with our hands. You can't get really rid of it in my experience, all you can do is manage it, or so it would seem.

This time, when it flared up again, I grew rather more desperate. It's a total bummer when simple acts like lifting a cup of tea or scratching your ear irritate your elbow. I had to stop work altogether, and the future was looking, well, kinda bleak.

So, I decided to try something new - PRP.

PRP stands for 'Platelet Rich Plasma'. They take a sample of your blood, spin it in a centrifuge and create a nuclear weapon. Er, I mean they create a condensed solution heavy in platelets and drain off the excess fluids. This platelet-dense extract is then injected into the injury site in multiple locations; in fact they perforate the end of the tenon in many locations where it connects to the bone. Of course, local anesthetic is employed and the injections are done with an ultrasound monitor as a guide. This PRP treatment process is thought to speed healing in an area which suffers from rather poor blood supply, one of the reasons why healing is generally so slow otherwise.

PRP is relatively new on the scene and is not covered by my medical insurance, however a treatment only cost $200, which wasn't too bad at all.

I'm about 10 days out from the procedure now and am starting to feel like I'm climbing out of that sandpit. Apparently it will be 4~6 weeks before I notice definite improvement and 3 months before the mythical 100% level is reached again. The healing effect can continue for 6~8 months apparently. We'll see. I'm feeling optimistic today about my elbow for the first time in quite a while.

Having time off allows for all sorts of mischief. My wife and I decided to take a little road trip down to Pennsylvania to visit her 97 year-old uncle in Pittsburgh. He's the last surviving student of Oppenheimer.

Pennsylvania is a damn long state - getting to Pittsburgh from Western MA took about 9 hours driving, more than half of which took place entirely within PA.

Pennsylvania has some curious town names. These are the sort of things anyone from out of the state would surely notice. Real places with names like:



  • Bath Addition
  • Bird-in-Hand
  • Nanty Glo
  • Quiggleville
  • Gravity
  • Epharta
  • Blue Ball
  • Intercourse
  • Boring
  • Jim Thorpe


  • The last one, Jim Thorpe, came up after we had stopped for an overnight stay to break up our journey into a couple of more manageable chunks. The next morning, we had a bit of time on our schedule , so we googled 'historic homes' near to where we were staying. Jim Thorpe, PA came up and that's where we went.

    My wife is 10 years younger then I am and not into sports too much, so she had never heard of Jim Thorpe. I'd read about him when I was young, probably in the Guinness Book of World Records or somewhere like that. He was voted the Greatest Athlete of the Twentieth Century by ABC Sports at one point:


    Thorpe was the quintessential multi-sport athlete. He entered the decathlon, pentathlon, high jump, and long jump in the 1912 Olympics, coming in to the meet with some pretty stout achievements:

    " He could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat, the 220 in 21.8 seconds, the 440 in 51.8 seconds, the 880 in 1:57, the mile in 4:35, the 120-yard high hurdles in 15 seconds, and the 220-yard low hurdles in 24 seconds. He could long jump 23 ft 6 in and high-jump 6 ft 5 in. He could pole vault 11 feet, put the shot 47 ft 9 in, throw the javelin 163 feet, and throw the discus136 feet."

    He won the decathlon in the 1912 Olympics, setting a record that would stand for 2 decades. He also won the pentathlon, winning 4 of the 5 events. He placed 4th in the high jump, and 7th in the long jump, despite the fact that someone stole his shoes and he had to compete in mis-matched footwear. Just for added fun, he also competed in baseball, which was an exhibition sport in those Olympics.

    Thorpe had apparently received pay for playing baseball in 1909 and 1901 - we're talking a grand remuneration of $2 per game. The newspapers did their usual muckraking, and, with the prevailing racist sentiment of the time, and those odd Anglo-American cultural ideas about the 'pure' ideals amateur athletes are supposed to represent, Thorpe was stripped of his Olympic medals. They were later reinstated in 1982 by the IOC, however the medals themselves, which had been on display at museums, had been stolen somewhere along the line.

    After his athletic career, as Thorpe was part American Indian he found employment difficult to gain in our prejudicial society, and eventually became an alcoholic, dying in 1953 of heart failure. U.S. Senate Joint Resolution 73, proclaimed Monday, April 16, 1973, as "Jim Thorpe Day" to promote the nationwide recognition of Thorpe. I'm sure this is familiar to most Americans....
    Following Thorpe's death, however, the generous and open-hearted folks of the government of Oklahoma refused to erect a monument in his honor, due to Thorpe's 'tainted' past. Thorpe's widow, was then faced with looking to find an alternative place in which to inter her husband's remains.
    The towns on Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, PA had fallen on somewhat hard times in the 1950's. Thus began an effort to revitalize Mauch Chunk. A newspaper editor, Joe Boyle, had persuaded 'Chunkers' to contribute a nickel each week to a fund that was to be used to lure factories to the town. Mrs. Thorpe found out about the situation and proposed a memorial to her late husband as an alternative means of gaining attention for the town, and the town devoted about $10,000 from the fund to pay for it. The name of Mauch Chunk, which you still see on the town's railway station, taken from the term Mawsch Unk, or "bear place" in the Munsee-Lenape Delaware people's language, was thereby retired.

    We didn't travel to Jim Thorpe to visit the mausoleum or museum dedicated to Jim Thorpe. We went there to check out the house of one Asa Packer. He lived from 1805–1879, was a coal and railroad magnate and founder of Lehigh University. He was a philanthropist. His mansion is one of the best preserved Italianate Villa homes in the United States. 

    I've visited many historic homes, from Newport to New York to Delaware Valley, Asheville NC and elsewhere. Whenever I travel I generally make it a point to visit an old classic home or two. This is as much out of an interest in architecture, strictly speaking, as it is a hope of finding examples of good woodwork, which are so rare to come across otherwise in this sterile plastic McMansion world. 

    The Asa Packer Mansion did not disappoint in that regard - it is rich in detail, just as you would expect a Victorian artifact to be. Let's look at the exterior view as you ascend the path towards the house:


    From the outside, nothing too exceptional, though I did very much enjoy the casing and detailing around the sash windows, and the curved rafters above the porch:


    The house was completed in 1861 at a cost of $14,000 (@2.5 million in today's dollars), and at that time, the client Asa Packer was the third richest man in the United States. In the late 1870's the house was enlarged considerably as part of renovations to honor Asa and his wife Sarah's 50th wedding anniversary, at a cost of $85,000. Now, 50th wedding anniversaries were rare at the time and some 1500 people attended the celebrations. The architect for the house was Samuel Sloan of Philadelphia. You might recall mention of this fellow in a past posting on this blog about octagonal houses in the US.

    The view of the rear of the house shows the cupola (aka a belvedere) to great effect, along with the ice house just visible in the foreground:




    It's got a decent eave, I'll give it that! The octagonal cupola serves as a venting device for the entire house and, with a spiral staircase below, allows for a view of the valley (not that you're allowed up there to take a look however).

    What makes this house a standout is the interior, which is completely intact. Think about that: a completely intact victorian high class interior, complete down to the occupant's spectacles and napkins.

    Upon the death of Mary Packer Cummings (then the richest woman in America) in 1912, Mr. Packer's daughter, the home was willed to the Borough of Mauch Chunk to remain as a memorial to her father and his many accomplishments. The borough, not certain what to do with the home - not thinking that a victorian interior was anything but passé - closed it, and for 44 years the home sat idle. One can always count on politicians to be anything but forward-thinking I guess.

    This place is like a time capsule, one with 18 rooms and 11,000 square feet of living space. The Asa Packer Mansion was reopened in 1984 and became a National Historic Landmark in 1985. The Museum operates as a nonprofit basis from entrance fees, donations, and a small trust from Mrs. Cummings. The Mansion has never received any Federal funding.

    Most historic homes you visit in these here parts are stripped of their interior furnishings and you walk around in an empty shell, which certainly removes much of the context for understanding the built environment. Or there may be furnishings in place, but they are usually not original to the house. So, to visit the Asa Packer house is something truly special. It is authentic right down to the brushes and combs in the bathrooms.

    Unlike most industrial tycoons, I suspect, Asa Packer had apprenticed as a carpenter in his youth so he appreciated fine woodwork - what I mean is, he could tell what was good woodwork and what wasn't. This is unusual in and of itself. In fact, Asa was born in Mystic, Connecticut and grew up poor and in a log cabin. His father was unsuccessful in business and couldn't provide much beyond sustenance for the family. Asa came to Pennsylvania on foot, and apprenticed under his cousin Edward Packer. After that carpentry apprenticeship, he found trouble obtaining work after a year of trying and soon after got married and became a farmer. In the winters, he used his carpentry skills to repair canal boats. After 4 years of penury in that field, excuse the pun, he got into canal boat running and canal boat building back in Mauch Chunk. Canals then lead him to railroads....

    Asa began his career in Mauch Chunk by operating a canal boat hauling coal to Philadelphia. He captained the boat himself and was almost immediately successful. Within a few years he was enlarging and extending his business to include construction and merchandising. He persuaded a younger brother, Robert, to enter into partnership with him and soon they were operating two transportation lines down the Lehigh and another from Pottsville south along the Schuylkill. Asa and Robert were reputedly the first to send coal in unbroken cargoes from Pottsville to New York City. They started leasing and mining coal lands. These included the Room Run Mines of the Old Company, which the brothers took over in 1839. By the time of Robert's death in 1848 they had increased by more than threefold the output of the mines. Asa also entered into business with others-for example, his brother-in-law James I. Blakslee for merchandising, and Ezekiel W. Harlan for rebuilding part of the Lehigh Canal after the devastation caused by the flood of 1841.
    From: http://www.lehigh.edu/library/speccoll/asa_packer_books/yates_packer.pdf


    Later on Asa risked his entire life savings to get into railroads, a bet which paid off many times over. When Asa had made his money in railroads and coal, and set out to build a grand house, and he brought over Swedish carpenters and carvers to execute much of the interior work on his house. The building itself is framed in cast iron.

    The Library of Congress has on file a set of building drawings for this structure which I'd like to share here.

    South:


    West:


    A cross-section of the front elevation:


    The plan view of the roof:


    A look at some of the doors and windows:



    As for the interior, it was incredible, however no photography was permitted. I of course honored that rule during my visit. Fortunately, some black and white photos of the house just before it was reopened do exist online:


    Check out the ceiling:


    The above is a view of the parlor. Lighting the parlor is a chandelier decorated with over 850 pieces of hand cut crystal. It was used as a model for the film “Gone with the Wind.”

    The ceilings throughout the house were wonderfully varied, an aspect which reminds me of Japanese domestic architecture. If I might make a little word play at the expense of a coffered ceiling, it is a relief, I'll tell you, to see a ceiling which isn't simply white gypsum board.

    The dining room:


    The stained glass window planes were a later addition.

    Sitting room:


    Note the fireplace. When the house was renovated for their Golden Anniversary, Asa Packer converted the home to central heating. The fireplaces were closed and covered with a pink velvet drapery with gold threads imported from France.

    The paneling throughout much of the house is Honduran Mahogany. It looks perfect today, a testament to the intrinsic superior qualities of that material. The main hall is lined in English oak. The Gothic motif is used throughout, and is particularly dramatic in the woodcarvings in the Main Hall and stairs and the bracketed ceiling and stained-glass windows in the dining room. Endless carved medallions are seen in the panel frames,  no two of which are alike. The above pictures really only hint at how awesome the woodwork inside the house truly is, so check it out for yourself.

    The key thing to keep in mind is that the Asa Packer mansion is not a restoration; it exists essentially as the Packer family resided here from Oct. 16, 1861 to Oct. 29, 1912. A bit of money was put into the house in recent years to upgrade the heating system, but that is about it. Definitely a 'must-see' if you can get you and yours on down to Jim Thorpe, PA.

    Thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way.