The Schifferdecker Strategic Demolition

Demolition too often suggests detonation or a complete reversal of what has been constructed—destruction. Despite those easily amused by the immediacy of pressing a button, there have been important shifts towards identifying and protecting cultural resources with resultant, positive effects on our society. A broader discussion about additional forms of demolition (from neglect) will be part of a future blog post, but, for now, we’ll narrow down the focus to a reversal of destruction called strategic demolition.

On its surface, strategic demolition is a subtractive process. To progress beneath surfaces in a restoration project is to seek guidance towards bringing back the most authentic layers to be preserved. Its function is to break down the stories of the structure into what has been added or taken away at certain points in time and what story that may tell. Typically, an exploratory peeling away produces a genealogy of quick fixes, a list of necessary repairs, and their resultant impacts. Socio-economic trends, the commercial impetus of the day, pragmatic necessity, and the quest for certain comforts tend to reveal themselves in this process. From dust and rocks to walls and enclosures, the examination can often leave an additional mark, despite the restorative goals. Additionally, frustrations connected with not uncovering enough can amount to solving one problem while causing or exposing two more. For instance, the Schifferdecker house was left with the mark of fire from 1991 but also the mark of water used to put out the fire; the wood rot associated with prior remediation is another set of issues related to long-term protections. (We often forget how close we came to losing the Schifferdecker house to fire and subsequent demolition by neglect. Nothing could have ever properly replaced it!) Joplin Historical Neighborhoods’ objective is really the opposite of demolition: restoration in order to protect the possibility of ongoing education through the home’s past(s).

Repetition of components, recordability and consistency are critical factors in a preservation plan for immediate stabilization and the long-term viability of a house museum. The act of digging out mortar samples from the stone foundation, brick masonry walls, sandstone features, and terra cotta detailing helps identify original substances which can subsequently be broken down into specific materials. This allows us to view even the most minute pieces making up the larger structure. The sand aggregate (photo above) encases the Carthage stone walls becoming a system known as a foundation wall. Thousands of simple pieces such as this connect in various ways to form a bigger picture—an extensive design amounting to the landmark we know as the Schifferdecker House.

Let’s look even closer at one of these tiny, structural elements at 5th and Sergeant: a grain of sand. Or in our case, it is a random, light brown combination of fine aggregate, probably locally obtained. Mixed with water and lime putty in specific proportions, it creates a mortar mix. There have been at least six different mortars added to the Schifferdecker walls. Over time, foundation stones have been cut out, portions of masonry walls rebuilt, mortar joint-profiles altered, masonry painted, stained, lime-washed, and charred. In fact, with so many changes, one would think we would no longer even recognize the home! Strategic demolition of the masonry walls involves cutting into the original fabric to analyze its ingredients, documenting what we have/what changes were made, and then developing a solution that comes closest to the original relationships between the mortar, the stones, brick masonry, and terra cotta. Test areas in less visible sections of the home have been critical for our process and our research. In light of 100+ years of changes, our range of elements grows from grains of sand to rebuilding chimneys, jack-arches, foundational concerns, broken bricks, cracked stone, missing pieces/elements, and so forth.

Demolition in a strategic manner informs our process of restoration, marking the elements added as we focus on what the building was like during the period from 1890 to 1915—the years the Schifferdeckers made Joplin’s castle their home. Charles and Wilhelmina Schifferdecker made enhancements themselves after construction was complete. The ornate, entry railings were not original to the house the day it was finished. However, they were installed around the turn of the century and contribute well to the story of the home. Several alterations from the period after the Schifferdeckers’ residency have long-ago been altered and re-altered and we continue to learn about them through old photographs, written accounts, and personal narratives. The home even had a period of commercial use between WWII and the 1960s as a funeral home. Some traces of the business use remain, though many features are gone. Again, one of the most dramatic changes to the structure of the home occurred in the fire of 1991 and its gradual demise for almost ten years afterward. Via strategic demolition, we hope not only to bring to light and document even more from these periods as part of the history and legacy of the Schifferdecker home, but also use what we’ve learned to open the door for the home’s next 100 years.