U. S. Post Office, Little Falls, MN, lobby with clock, 2018.
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Maintaining Buildings for the Long-Term

U.S. Post Office, Little Falls, MN, October 11, 2019.
U.S. Post Office, Little Falls, MN, October 11, 2019.

My favorite building in Little Falls, Minnesota, is the U.S. Post Office with its giant Corinthian columns on the front facade. This blocky building covered in red brick speaks of solidity. It’s monumental, yet the smoothness of the columns gives it grace. When I visit, I have a tendency to run my hand over the surface of the columns like they are some sort of talisman. (I may be weird, but I believe buildings like to be touched.)

I have noticed the wear on the post office, the cracks at the base of the columns, the damaged mortar on the steps, and the erosion on the cement facing panels. It makes me sad to see it crumble.

Base of column showing wear on the Little Falls, MN, post office, October 2019
Base of column showing wear on the Little Falls, MN, post office, October 2019.

 

U. S. Post Office, damage to ramp wall due to age, Little Falls, MN, 2019.
U. S. Post Office, damage to ramp wall due to age, Little Falls, MN, 2019.

I was delighted to see workers giving the post office some serious tender loving care this fall. They worked on the dental molding at the top of the building, replaced a bunch of the cement panels on the base, put in new mortar, and even replaced the front door.

U.S. Post Office, Little Falls, MN, October 11, 2019. Some of the cement facing was removed, revealing the yellow brick underneath.
U.S. Post Office, Little Falls, MN, October 11, 2019. Some of the cement facing was removed, revealing the yellow brick underneath.

 

U.S. Post Office, Little Falls, MN, October 30, 2019. Cement facing panels awaiting installation.
U.S. Post Office, Little Falls, MN, October 30, 2019. Cement facing panels awaiting installation.

 

U.S. Post Office, Little Falls, MN, October 30, 2019. Cement facing panels replaced under Handicap Access sign.
U.S. Post Office, Little Falls, MN, October 30, 2019. Cement facing panels replaced under Handicap Access sign.

 

U.S. Post Office, Little Falls, MN, October 11, 2019. Detail showing the dental molding.
U.S. Post Office, Little Falls, MN, October 11, 2019. Detail showing the dental molding.

I stopped one bitterly cold day at the end of October to talk to one of the workers who was replacing cement panels and mortar. He said they had maybe one week of work left but were having trouble with the mortar because of the unseasonably cold weather. I told him how much I appreciated seeing this maintenance work done on the building.

I also mentioned how the Library of Congress in Washington DC has masons on-staff to maintain the building year-round. He thought that was an interesting concept, but I believe this constant maintenance is key to caring for a building without being socked with a sudden gigantic repair bill. While this is not necessarily news to most people caring for buildings, it’s become a major concern of mine in trying to figure out how to maintain a specially-designed museum building.

How do we ensure that we are regularly inspecting the building to find issues before they become major problems? How do we figure out how much to budget for this continuous maintenance and raise the necessary funds? How do we find the skilled contractors we need perform this continuous maintenance?

Each one of these areas (regular inspections, budgeting, and finding skilled contractors) can be a barrier to keeping up with structural maintenance, which is why deferring maintenance is such a common thing.

While I’m working on all three areas for the museum, I am by no means close to having answers to these challenges. So, I put the question out to my museum colleagues and others who have cared for the upkeep of public buildings they love. How have you overcome these challenges related to inspections, a maintenance budget, and locating and retaining skilled contractors? Or, like me, are you still struggling?

Please share your thoughts in the comments.

P.S. While a number of maintenance tasks were performed on the Little Falls Post Office, including finishing the installation of the cement facing panels, the bases of the columns have not yet been repaired. It’s a work in progress, as all building maintenance is.

 

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