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Feature Story: Jan Lewandoski – Historic Preservationist

January 14, 2014 1:23 pm Category: Archive, News, People & Places Leave a comment A+ / A-

(This story was first published in the January 3, 2014 edition of the Vermont Standard.)

Jan Lewandoski – Historic Preservationist
Lewandoski is one of the most wanted historic preservationists in the state. His specialty is the older – the better. Katy Savage Photos

by Katy Savage, Standard Staff
Jan Lewandoski is one of the most wanted historic preservationists in the state. His specialty is anything old — the older, the better.

Lewandoski restored the First Universalist Society church steeple in Hartland last spring, fixed a church steeple in Barnard in 2012 and rebuilt a church in Weathersfield in the 1980s after it burnt to the ground.

Most hear about him through recommendations from the Preservation Trust of Vermont, an organization dedicated to preserving historic structures.

“He’s one of the best, if not the best, expert in the state on timber frame construction,” said Paul Bruhn executive director of the Preservation Trust.

Before he begins any construction project, Lewandoski writes a report about the structure’s history, using the special collections section at libraries or going on site visits. “They’re more obscure,” Lewandoski said of old timber frames. “They’re more removed from our experiences and they take more forensic work.”

On a chilly day in early December, Lewandoski unloaded frozen lumber from his pick-up truck for the timber- framed Bowers covered bridge in West Windsor amidst freshly fallen snow. Over the next month, Lewandoski planned to rebuild the structure to make the bridge stronger after a series of damages the past couple years. The bridge was swept off its abutments in Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, then just after it was restored, a town highway department truck hit an internal knee brace. Last fall, an overweight vehicle drove across it cracked a chord. The bridge had been closed for nine months.

Lewandoski works on bridges, steeples and barns. He is part of the reason the Preservation Trust has a barn grant program.

“Jan was the one who blew the whistle 25 years ago saying that Vermont was losing a significant number of barns,” Bruhn said.

The Preservation Trust lobbied the legislature to start a program that would provide grants to help barn owners in the early ’90s and the organization has been doing it every since. The Preservation Trust gives about 15 grants for barns and assessments every year. Before Lewandoski was a builder, and before he founded his business, Restoration and Traditional Building, he was a history and science professor at Johnson State College.

“I’ve always known how to do carpentry work and I liked it,” he said.

Lewandoski began his first construction project when he was six, helping his father build hardwood floors. Later on in life, he developed a knack for buying and fixing the oldest houses he could find. Now, he works on structures that have lasted hundreds of years and builds them to last hundreds more. “You can do all the research you want but unless you actually touch the object and take it apart and put it back together again, your knowledge won’t be as good,” Lewandoski said.

The first bridge he worked on was the Windsor-Cornish Bridge in the late 1970s. Built in 1866, it’s the largest covered bridge in the United States, spanning 460 feet. Lewandoski spent 14 months at the site with a crew, fixing the bridge that some thought wasn’t strong enough for car traffic.

In 1986, Lewandoski rebuilt a church in Weathersfield after it burnt, using as much of the original timber he could.

Lewandoski makes assessments of historic structures across the nation. Earlier this week for example, he was assessing a building in Knoxville, Tenn.

His passion for historic structures sometimes inspires communities to gather and save them.

Churchgoers and non-churchgoers raised $100,000 last spring to save the 150-year-old First Universalist Society steeple in Hartland.

In East Barnard, the community also rallied to save a church last year when it was starting to rot.

“It was a really gratifying process for the church to find that people cared about the church and were in favor of doing it and were in favor of rebuilding the existing structure,” said Karen Thorkilsen, an East Barnard Church member who first noticed the damaged steeple.

“(Jan) is someone who…really honors the techniques used in the first place,” she said.

Ann Cousins, a field service representative at the Preservation Trust, met Lewandoski in 1989 when she was a student at the University of Vermont and he was a guest lecturer.

“As a student, his passion is contagious,” she said. “When he talks about the craftsmanship of a barn, it just gives you a respect for those people who built those buildings and cared for them over the years.”

Just a few weeks ago, Lewandoski had Bowers Bridge lifted by crane off its abutments. Part of the structure will be rebuilt with a spruce tree he cut from his 120-acre woods in northern Vermont.

He’ll be done with Bowers Bridge next month and then will start restoring a steeple from Cambridge, Mass.

“Vermont is very lucky to have him as a resident,” Bruhn said.

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