Restoration on Track 

Day by day, the Roundhouse Railroad Museum is carefully being restored. It is a massive project, one requiring skill and extensive knowledge of historic preservation. Virtually everything is done in a way that preserves as much of the original structures as possible.

The Coastal Heritage Society, which manages the site, has put together a 30-member preservation team comprising mostly Savannah College of Art and Design historic preservation graduates and students.

Coastal Heritage Society Marketing Director MIchael Jordan says the complex is unique. “It was started as one large complex,” he says. “At the time, it was revolutionary to build it all at once.”

The Roundhouse Railroad Museum today is the most extensive historic railroad district in the world. It has been named a National Historic Landmark.

The complex also was unique because of its technology, which was advanced for those times. It boasted a 40,000 gallon water tank over a natural spring, which meant flushing privies could be installed.

The Central Railroad and Canal Co. was chartered in 1833 to give Savannahians a way to export local crops, such as cotton. The canal never materialized, but the railroad grew rapidly. Two years later, the first structures were built at what is now the Roundhouse Railroad Museum.

By 1859, the Central Railroad and Banking Co. of Georgia had built the longest continuous railroad under one management in the world. There were 190 miles of rail, and rolling stock that included more than 50 locomotives and 500 cars, making it the second largest holding in the South.

The entire complex was built over a historic site -- the area where the Siege of Savannah was fought during the Revolutionary War. The battle was fought on Oct. 9, 1779 on the slope in front of the Spring Hill Redoubt, an earthen fortification used by the British.

American troops, aided by the French and Haitians, fought the British in the second bloodiest battle of the war. Seven thousand soldiers were involved, and 850 of them were killed or wounded, including Count Casimir Pulaski and Sgt. William Jasper.

Today, the railroad complex is considered historically important in its own right and has been designated the Georgia State Museum of Railroad History. Thirteen of its original buildings are still standing.

During the Civil War, most of the railroad’s rolling stock was released by government order to the Confederate military. William T. Sherman’s soldiers destroyed as many rail connections as they could by heating the rails on fires and wrapping them around trees and telegraph poles.

These “Sherman’s neckties,” as they were called, were irreparable in the field. When Sherman arrived in Savannah, all the remaining rail and rolling stock at the Roundhouse were destroyed, but the buildings at the complex were spared.

After the Civil War, the rail connections were replaced and the railroad was restored and expanded. Nearly 1,500 miles of rail were added.

In 1893, the Central purchased the fastest train in the country, the Nancy Hanks. In 1895, the railroad became the Central of Georgia Railway, which reached its peak in the early 1920s.

The railroad was the largest employer in the area for more than a century. During the Depression, the company went bankrupt, but operations continued.

However, with the advent of diesel engines in the last 1940s, the company began to fade. The Roundhouse was not conducive to diesel service, and most of the diesel trains were sent to Macon.

“When the steam engines were replaced by diesel, this was obsolete,” Jordan says. “As of 1963, it was derelict. Southern Railway put hundreds of people out of jobs.”

That was the year the Southern Railway purchased the Central and closed the shops. The site sat vacant until 1989, when it came under the management of the Coastal Heritage Society.

Covering two blocks, the buildings are being restored as a museum. Historic rolling stock is restored in the site’s Back Shops.

The 30-person team doing the renovation is comprised of Savannah College of Art and Design historic preservation graduates and students. “This was a ruin when they got here,” Jordan says of the Master Mechanics Office, now being restored and converted to office space.

Sonia Dejesus is project manager of the Master Mechanics Office. Mortar is being scraped out and replaced and old, broken bricks that cannot be used are being removed and replaced with vintage brick. The team also has created new windows that look like the original windows, which were lost long ago.

“It was dark, dirty, when I first saw it,” says Dejesus. “I think it’s a very noble career to restore historic buildings and fix them so they can be used again. These people are doing a really good job.”

Team members are busy repairing termite damage and replacing rotting timbers.

One wall looks as if it has been damaged by fire, but it was actually painted black during the filming of the movie Glory. “We’re thinking about leaving that wall black,” Dejesus says.

Some of the “tricks” of historic preservation are being used in the building’s renovation. Dejesus’ team is creating modern thermal insulation that simulates historic wood. Fire retardant paints also are being used at this site.

Another method being utilized is saddleboxing. “We’re covering original beams so they can be used without damaging them,” Dejesus says.

At the Compressor Room, Aaron Hallquist is the project manager. “This building was finished in 1855,” he says.

Hallquist points to the original woodwork that is being restored. “Look at the growth rings in that wood,” he says. “These boards were taken from old-growth pines that were probably 400 to 500 feet tall.”

The ongoing projects at the museum are multi-phase. Each project manager does several jobs.

“My job is assessing the damage.” Hallquist says. “It’s pretty much a stock-in-trade preservation job.”

Despite appearances, the building is structurally sound, although some emergency stabilization was undertaken in one of its corners last year. The walls are made of Savannah gray brick.

“It is very soft, very porous,” Hallquist says. “Everything we do we try to use the original parts of the structure. We try to save what we can.

“This job is pretty much typical preservation,” he says. “It’s not a nightmare, but there are several challenges.”

In October 2002, a purchase agreement was reached between the City of Savannah and Norfolk Southern Corp. for the 9.5 acre battlefield site. Voters approved $8 million in SPLOST funds in March 2003 to develop the battlefield park, and in December, the sale was completed.

In purchasing the battlefield, the city also acquired the Carpentry Shops building. There is little of the original building left, but once it is restored, it will become the heart of the state railroad museum.

Becki Harkness is the project manager of the Carpentry Shops. “This project has been in the works for six years,” she says. “I’ve been involved for two years.”

At times, the project seemed to be moving forward, then it would stall. “I’ve found it goes back and forth,” Harkness says.

“For now, we have the funding to do the masonry work,” she says. “We are getting ready to send out bids.”

The buildings forlorn appearance is due to a fire. “It has burned twice -- in 1923 and again in 1987, after it was reconstructed,” Harkness says.

The first fire was caused when acetylene was used during the painting of passenger cars. “It destroyed one wall,” Harkness says.

“In the ‘80s, some homeless people were living in the basement,” she says. “They started a fire and caught the floor of the building on fire.”

The Coach Shops and Paint Shops were built in the 1920s, according to project manager Terry Koller. The Paint Shops were purchased along with the Carpentry Shop by the City of Savannah for the Battlefield Park project.

“There are two major projects in this building,” Koller says. “There are roof drains throughout the building that have allowed the roof to leak, which has caused major damage to the roof and the structural columns.”

It is the columns that hold up the roof. “There are 60 columns in the building,” Koller says. “Twenty of them have roof drains. Those 20 are so close to failure, it’s not even funny.”

The bases of the affected columns have rusted and deteriorated to the point that they offer little support. Koller points to one of the column bases.

“There is only 30 percent of the original column left to support the roof,” he says. “A catastrophic event could cause it to collapse.”

This is not taken lightly. Workers leave the building any time a storm approaches.

Replacing the columns has been somewhat difficult. Over the years, the size of similar support beams has changed.

Koller says it is a challenge to find replacement bases and columns that match the originals. “We are completely replacing about half a dozen columns,” he says. “Where the roof drains, the seal is so badly deteriorated, we are having to replace the support beams.”

A large forklift is used to hold the roof up while a column is placed. Despite the difficulty of the restoration project in this building, Koller says it is hoped the work will be completed in about a year.

Visitors’ eyes are drawn to the graffiti that covers the walls. “Over the last 25 years, it’s been primarily SCAD students coming in and painting on the walls,” Koller says.

“It’s been going on so long, they think it’s permitted, but it’s not,” he says. “We’ve been trying really hard to keep people out of the building.”

An electronic security system now helps to keep trespassers out of the building. Yet the graffiti is part of the building’s uniqueness.

“We are debating whether or not to preserve the graffiti because it is part of the building’s history,” Koller says. “Some of it is actually very good. We may leave part of it.”

Although the original paint is long gone, the walls were once painted white. “It is a beautiful building,” Koller says.

The building has a sawtooth roof, an unusual design design. “It is one of only three buildings like this in Savannah,” Koller says.

Skylights were placed inside the “teeth” of the roof, making the building a “daylight factory.”

“All the light was provided by skylights,” Koller says. “There was no electricity.”

Eventually, the building will be used as a museum. “It will be a youth museum,” Jordan says. “That’s a long way down the road.

“For now, we are just trying to preserve the building.” he says, adding that it is an urgent matter. “Even now, when the wind blows strong, everyone gets out,” he says.

The nearby Coach Shops may someday house the CSS Georgia, a Confederate ironclad that now lies in the Savannah River directly across from Old Fort Jackson.

As some structures are being renovated, another will be created. Plans for the proposed Battlefield Park call for the reconstruction of the Spring Hill Redoubt.

For now, the work is on hold as one more archaeological dig is undertaken at the site. Archaeologist Rita Elliott says she will be looking for lots of artifacts, including items from the War of 1812.

This is not the first time work on the park has been delayed. An environmental cleanup had to be conducted at the site to remove lead and arsenic from the soil, industrial pollutants leftover from the railroad days.

Battlefield Park project manager Brian White says research will help with reconstruction of the Spring Hill Redoubt. The original redoubt is believed to be somewhere under Louisville Road, but the reconstructed redoubt will be placed as close to the original site as possible, at the intersection of Louisville Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

White says the redoubt will be a hybrid between similar structures from that era and the descriptions of the redoubt in historic records.

Original plans called for the redoubt to be completed by Oct. 9, the 226th anniversary of the Siege of Savannah. Because of the archaeological dig, construction will be delayed.

“We have a general idea of how it was constructed,” White says. “We’re hoping it will be finished the first week in November.”

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Linda Sickler

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