Wilmington pergola perishing
by Jack Deming
Aug 08, 2013 | 4122 views | 1 1 comments | 116 116 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Pergola
Base of beam.
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WILMINGTON- Three years after a Town Meeting vote saved the pergola at River Bank Park, the award-winning park’s wooden structure may need saving once again.

In April, the town of Wilmington had the pergola inspected by local craftsman Eric Sprenger, who helped with its construction. According to Sprenger’s report, inspection of the pergola revealed decay at nearly every connection of post and beam, as well as intersections of the posts and the deck. Sprenger’s report lists four posts displaying decay, while three others show extensive cracking and “suggest weakened connections.”

Sprenger inspected the pergola by using a utility knife to penetrate one inch into the posts. He also bored the wood to sample for internal decay, and tapped to listen for solidity. Sprenger’s report recommends that the town replace all posts as soon as possible. “The amount of decay at several locations seriously compromises the integrity of the structure,” said Sprenger.

Completing the recommended repairs will be costly. According to town manager Scott Murphy, a preliminary estimate from a local woodworker put labor costs alone at approximately $5,600, a price that Murphy says the town simply does not have in its budget.

While the town waits for more information on replacement options and costs, Murphy said the town will look into immediate, low-cost repairs that can be done in the interim. “For now, we’ll at least do minor repairs,” said Murphy. “We’re looking into putting caps on the tops of the beams, and possibly using sealant to prevent more decay. Right now it doesn’t cause immediate danger. It’s in fine shape; it’s more about the next couple of years.”

The town is proceeding with caution, however, seeking a second estimate from another engineer. Park designer Joseph Cincotta is also having the first round of estimates reviewed by a landscape specialist who maintains a pergola structure located in New York City’s Central Park.

Made of limbs from an American elm tree on site, the park’s pergola was constructed in 2009, but caused controversy from conception to completion, as residents argued about its aesthetic value. A faction of town residents believed it was inappropriate, and not in tune with the historic district’s goals and criteria, and complained of flaws in the process leading up to its completion. Supporters meanwhile, said that the pergola was an asset to the town. After a year of discussion and a slew of letters to the editor of this publication, the issue of deconstructing the pergola was brought to Australian ballot at the 2010 Town Meeting. Voters decided to save the structure by a vote of 397 to 248.

Since those days of controversy, the park has sustained the wrath of Tropical Storm Irene, as well as an act of vandalism a month later, when someone attempted to pull one of its support beams out. Other damage to the park has included two washouts of sand from the brick walkway on the park’s southeast end, which were easily fixed.

“What’s rewarding is to see people use it when I’m at the traffic light. They’re now looking at the river, something they couldn’t do before. This is not a park I would have designed anywhere else. I designed it for Wilmington, and it cherishes and embellishes a lot of local character,” said Cincotta.

River Bank Park won Cincotta’s company, Linesync Architecture, a top design award in 2009 from the Vermont chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

At the time of its construction, Cincotta said the structure would be able to survive a 100-year flood, while stabilizing the river bank. While there was little damage to the park’s critical structure by Irene, decay has begun to set in earlier than expected, something Irene may have helped to facilitate, according to Cincotta.

Cincotta also said he intends to help the town with any repairs that need to be done. “It didn’t turn out the way we thought,” said Cincotta. “We were told by advising professionals at the time that American elm would last longer and it didn’t. If we need to replace portions of it we may decide to use a different (tree) species, but what’s important is finding the right branch to provide the best support.

“The bottom line is, we stand behind everything we do.”

The condition of the pergola may run the risk of resurfacing old controversies, something Cincotta says may be unavoidable, but also detrimental to the town. “There are always attempts at us vs. them, and that’s never a productive thing,” said Cincotta. After Irene we learned how to accept our differences and help each other, and progress in town since then has been extraordinary.”

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Phil_M
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August 08, 2013
While durable as long as it is saturated, elm has no rot resistance at all. Treating with copper, as farmers do with fence posts, at the onset may have provided some resistance- but it's too late for that now because the rotting material is now porous. Forget trying to seal it at this point. More damaging moisture would be trapped within than could be sealed out.

I have no real love or hatred for the pergola. I love the fact that the town, which is "VT town square deficient", purchased the perfect setting as an enhancement. I was surprised though, that the new park wasn't designed for more practical use. When I first learned of the purchase, I envisioned a speakers corner as they have in Europe and room for people to sit and listen to organized or not speakers, story tellers, musicians, meetings among citizens, and even as a backdrop for downtown block parties.

Yes, I also love to look down at the river- but that is best done as it always was, from the bridge directly over the river where I am often seen.