Drilling at the John Brown House

Monday marked a milestone in the history of the Rhode Island Historical Society and the John Brown House Museum as work began in earnest on Phase IV renovations and upgrades to the HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning) systems at the House. On the first day of drilling, Wragg Well Drilling Services completed the first two of nine closed-loop geothermal wells, a process that fascinated and delighted the Society’s staff. Is there anything quite as satisfying as watching construction work and the operation of large, loud, and dangerous equipment from the cozy safety of an office window? Although Collections Staff spent most of Tuesday moving items and cleaning out the basement to make way for prep work that will begin next week, each break saw them staring out the window, enraptured by the balletic processes of the drillers.

The drillers pump water into the well as the bit grinds downward and what comes up is liquid rock, not quite colloidal, that looks like lava as it flows and coagulates. If they did not use the water as they drilled, rock dust would blow up and “cover all of College Hill,” according to the site superintendent. Imaginative and slightly nervous curators picture a miniature Mount St. Helen’s, but instead there is this sludge and slop on the lawn and in the parking lot. There are also men and a rig and truck and a rattling and humming diesel engine that echoes off the frame houses of Benefit Street and the brick wall of Keeney Quad on Charlesfield.

One wonders what John Brown would have made of the work and the wet mess it makes. The noise would have been considerably less when John Brown dug his drains, though the mess was probably substantial, if less dramatic. In a March 16, 1796 letter, Brown advised Edward Dexter against a “pinched up” piece of property on a street that “will ever be a whet muddey way … I have experienced a somewhat  simenular Springey place tho not one Quarter so whet Viz. at the S.W. corner of my lot or Gardne below my house.” Brown installed a drain from under the walls of the cellar of the house that connected with the main drain, but nonetheless, “there is a very whet muddey place at almost all seasons below the S. W. part of my Garden.” (MSS 312)
This pervasive damp persists today in the basement of the John Brown House (which sometimes has a tropical or herpetarium-like atmosphere); Phase IV will ameliorate these conditions with the installation of pumping and self-draining dehumidifiers. Installed in the storerooms and large rooms of the basement, the dehumidifiers will stabilize the environment and provide the single largest step forward in museum storage since the installation of cabinets for china storage. As always, the work is noisy, messy, and expensive but we know that the long-term benefits for our visitors and our collections outweigh the inconvenience and expense.
–Kirsten Hammerstrom, Deputy Director of Collections

3 thoughts on “Drilling at the John Brown House

  1. Congratulations to Rhode Island Historical Society for making this extraordinary commitment!
    And thank you to Kirsten for her eloquent description of these eventually-to-be historic events!
    Hope there are MANY more of both…

  2. Can someone tell me whats happening with the Pergola? I saw the lovely wood carvings on the sides of the beams. I heard a RI Sculptor Mr Lamb was carving figures for the ends of the beams. When will they be finished and installed? Thanks AM

  3. The structural restoration of the pergola is complete, and new mahogany figures are being carved by Cathy Scanlan. I believe they will be installed when all of the figures have been finished. I know that several have been completed, and we certainly hope to have the pergola work completed as soon as possible, though no earlier than sometime this summer. If there are specific questions about the sculptor (a Rhode Island resident and RISD graduate), I can refer those to the Executive Director, Bernard Fishman, who is working with her. He is also working with the Wild Plant Society and landscape architects on replacement plantings for the area surrounding the pergola.

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