The last few issues of CEE News have covered some fascinating renovation projects. Staff Writer Amy Fischbach spent hours interviewing the electricians who work on the renovation projects at the dream houses filmed for the “This Old House” television show. For this month's issue, she interviews Tom Considine and Terry Murphy, two journeyman electricians at Chicago's Palmer House, the nation's longest continuously operating hotel (See the cover story).
All of these electricians share a passion for the buildings in which they work. Sure, they update the electrical service, install the most efficient lighting and add new computer networks, security systems and kick-butt sound systems. But in these historic buildings, they take special pride in keeping these features hidden behind the scenes, and in letting the beauty of the buildings shine through so that the architectural highlights of these buildings stand unblemished.
“No shortcuts” is their battle cry. They rewire one-of-a-kind antique lighting fixtures, snake cables through hidden crawlspace for three floors to avoid hacking through walls or ceilings and cut through 100-year-old horsehair plaster with the precision of a surgeon.
It takes a special breed of cat to enjoy this type of work. You must be particularly careful that the renovation or replacement of the buildings' ancient electrical systems meet current codes. Another challenge is finding building owners who realize that they are not looking at a typical renovation job, and that snaking cables for hours so walls and ceilings are not chopped up comes at a much higher cost than running the cable through surface raceway.
Electricians who prefer to work on new construction in anywhere-U.S.A. housing developments probably aren't tuned into the special joy that comes with helping restore an architectural treasure. Just ask Considine at the Palmer House or Sally Bates Hall, owner of Nantucket's Bates Electrical Contractors Inc., who was featured in last month's issue for the work she has done on “This Old House,” rewiring an 1887 beach cottage. Along with becoming somewhat of an expert on snaking cables through horsehair plaster and lathe walls, Hall loves to restore old lighting fixtures and incorporate them into the lighting designs that she does for customers.
As you will learn in this article, Considine and his crew have spent hours crawling through the ductwork of the Palmer House to provide guests with 21st century amenities in the first hotel in the U.S. with electricity, telephones and elevators.
If you want to learn more about historical renovation work, two of the best-known authorities on the subject are David Shapiro, author of Your Old Wiring and Old Electrical Wiring Maintenance and Retrofit and Gersil Kay, a professor on architecture and engineering and author of dozens of articles on lighting and renovating old buildings and the book, Fiber Optics in Architectural Lighting.