Person of the Week
In Good Hands: VanDerMaelen’s Skill Helps GKS Preserve the Past
As non-profit Guilford Keeping Society (GKS) Building and Grounds chair, master craftsman Steven VanDerMaelen has been particularly hard at work in the volunteer role, with several restoration projects now complete or nearly complete at GKS’s historic museums, the Medad Stone Tavern and Thomas Griswold House. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Steve VanDerMaelen looks out from the main entrance at the 1803 Medad Stone Tavern toward the newly restored wooden plank bridge on the property, one of many projects he and a team of Guilford Keeping Society volunteers have undertaken at the historic museum on Three Mile Course. Pam Johnson/Guilford Courier )
Beside the hearth in the Keeping Room, Steve VanDerMaelen sheds some light on what's inside the adjoining bee hive oven. Pam Johnson/Guilford Courier )
The hearth in the Keeping Room at Medad Stone Tavern, built in 1803. Pam Johnson/Guilford Courier )
If you scour the planes and angles of a restored historic window, woodwork detail, or other antique aspect of a building where master craftsman Steven VanDerMaelen has been at work, perhaps the highest compliment to pay is noting how the restoration dovetails so neatly with the original, it’s like nothing’s been done at all.
Au contraire. This year, Steve, who serves as non-profit Guilford Keeping Society (GKS) Building and Grounds chair, has been particularly hard at work in the volunteer role, with several restoration projects now complete or nearly complete. Given unexpected downtime due to COVID-19 restrictions, Steve has worked with a team of volunteers to tackle a significant to-do list at the society’s two museums in town, the Thomas Griswold House and Medad Stone Tavern.
The timing is also great as, in 2021, GKS will celebrate its 75th anniversary.
Steve says the restoration work is getting done thanks to the work of his awesome team. He notes, as an example, GKS President Bob Hartmann, who’s worked in tandem with Steve on several projects. Most recently, that includes the restoration of the wooden plank bridge outside the tavern (completed last month) and the exciting restoration underway in the tavern’s keeping room.
“It’s a room that never got a face lift,” says Steve, who invited the Courier to join him to check out the tavern and keeping room renovation last week.
As a person with a passion for the past, he immediately draws attention to the innovative craftsmanship of others who’ve had a hand in helping to restore the keeping room. He’s bowled over by the refurbished stonework of the massive open hearth and the brickwork incorporating an adjoining bee hive oven.
“What makes this room so special is the hearth area, where they did the cooking and baking for the tavern,” says Steve. “It’s right out of the Federal period and it’s very, very special because it draws so nicely. It’s just perfect, the way it works—the way the fire draws, the way the bee hive oven works.”
He feels fortunate to have had a chance to be on hand with some experienced GKS members who know the ins and outs of working the hearth and oven, which takes four hours to get up to temperature.
The iron door over the opening to the bee hive oven is hidden until Steve reveals it beneath a wood panel at one side of the hearth. The door, like all of the trim pieces of the keeping room, recently got a fresh coat of paint, in a subtle blue that’s a match to an original paint hue used in the tavern. Steve marvels at the work of the painter hired by GKS for the job, Philip Greene.
“He’s doing a knock-down job on the painting,” says Steve, who did much of the prep work to prepare the room for painting.
Steve has over the last two years helped GKS guide restoration work at the tavern, which has focused on two floors (lower and upper level). The keeping room is the rear room on the museum’s lower level.
Stepping out front and outside to reach the tavern’s expansive entrance on Three Mile Course, Steve points down and to the left, where a newly restored plank bridge makes a short span over a brook cutting through one of the tavern’s access lanes.
The late Carl Balestracci, Jr., during his work in support of GKS, motivated the society to have both lanes leading to the tavern dressed with native crushed pink granite, Steve notes.
“The bridge was a huge job, and we just replaced the top planks. But what was beautiful is I snap my fingers, and I have help, which is awesome,” Steve says.
Each six-foot long white oak plank was rendered in a North Guilford sawmill to a custom three inches thick and eight inches wide. The restoration of the bridge, which is not open to traffic, was undertaken to keep this view of the landscape true to the original building, says Steve.
“There was always a bridge there. In fact, the stone work that supports it is all period,” he says. (See photos of the bridge and hearth/bee hive oven with this story at www.zip06.com.)
When Steve steps into a historic home, the past leaps out at him, and the 1803 Medad Stone Tavern is no exception. He points out the wide, vertical boards of the tavern’s original white pine façade with some heads of hand-wrought nails poking through, then the wood framed windows holding numerous panes of original glass before heading back inside.
“When you go in an old home and realize that this whole place took three years to build, and you work with hand tools yourself, it’s moving,” he says.
In a restored first floor room of the tavern, large windows are painted with the same muted golden yellow as the fireplace mantle and other details. It’s one of his favorite rooms in the tavern.
“When you’re in there on a sunny day, with all the period glass as you look out the window, it grabs you. It’s just incredible,” says Steve.
He also appreciates the “knife-edge” finish of each wooden grid holding each pane of glass. The edge is so finely hand planed, you can pinch it between your fingers.
“In my lifetime, I want try to make something like that. That’s history to the bone,” Steve says.
Of the tavern, he adds, “it’s a very special museum and we’re so incredibly gifted to have it. It’s a gem. What’s really special about it is that almost all of it is all there from the 1803 period.”
The Griswold House
He feels much the same about the society’s 1764 Thomas Griswold House museum, a classic New England saltbox dwelling overlooking Boston Street. In fact, Steve is about to embark on an extensive window project that’s being undertaken by GKS.
“We’re on a big window drive. This winter, we’re going to be working on windows at the Griswold House,” says Steve.
The project will focus on the windows at the front of the house.
“It’s very involved,” says Steve of the restoration work. “You have to steam the windows individually, in a steam box, so all the putty comes off. Then you take all the glass out and clean all the wood, so that all the lead paint comes off. Then you oil prime everything, with no glass in it. Then you make a bead of caulk and you set the period glass back in. It’s labor intensive.”
GKS hires Steve for the exacting window work. Earlier this year, he duplicated two windows on the east side of the Griswold house, using 19th century tools and techniques.
“They were done in the [1980s] but they were historically accurate and they had rotted out,” says Steve of the mortise and tenon window frames. “I put them back together to their original state and put them back into the openings.”
Steve says the craftsmen who built wooden windows in the 18th- and 19th century were masters of their work.
“That’s the tinker toy of the 18th- and 19th century. Making wood sash is probably the most complicated work for a cabinet maker,” he says. “There would have been one individual who just makes sash.”
Steve’s been a fan of historic buildings and the mastery of centuries-old craftsmen techniques since boyhood. The North Guilford resident recalls being fascinated by the artisan craftspeople demonstrating their skills during summer craft shows on the green (hosted by Guilford Art Center, those shows evolved to become today’s Expo). Trips to Mystic Seaport as a boy also stuck with him.
“I can remember going to Mystic Seaport as a little, little kid, and seeing the blacksmith behind the scene working, and getting gooseflesh,” says Steve.
As an adult and master woodworker, Steve still got that feeling when he had the opportunity to examine the fine craftsmanship on display in Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
“I can remember going down to Independence Hall with the Boy Scouts and going to see where the Declaration was signed, and I was overwhelmed with the woodwork,” says Steve. “All the Windsor chairs curved together in rows, and all the hand-planed, raised paneling on a radius following that, and realizing the woodwork was done with razor-sharp tools, and the craftsman is totally in tune with his tool. The marriage between hand tools and your soul is very special.”
Steve’s artisan woodworking workshop in North Guilford has sent his work out into the world for more than four decades, including quite a bit of period work among Guilford’s inventory of historic homes and buildings. A few years back, he historically duplicated four doors for the main opening of North Guilford Congregational Church, matching the 1814 Federal period work.
Steve’s appreciation and passion for keeping historic buildings alive led him to join GKS a little over five years ago.
“You get to a point in life where you feel like giving back and, having 40-plus years in the trades and restoration work, I knew I could give something to these people,” he says. “I saw a slot where I could really help.”
Steve soon found many friends and hands-on project volunteers among the folks of GKS.
“We have fun. We have a great group of people,” says Steve. “I could not consider the work I’ve done, and the involvement, unless there was just a great team like this one. We all work together, and we just make it happen.”
Of course, it also takes monetary support for GKS to maintain its historic museum buildings so that the past can be preserved and shared with the public.
“A lot of people don’t realize that these museums skate along on thin ice. Without the public support and state and federal grants, we struggle,” says Steve.
To learn more about Guilford Keeping Society, its museums, and becoming a member or to make a donation, visit www.guilfordkeepingsociety.com.