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Vermont Hosts First-Ever Conference On
Best Ways Of Preserving Covered Bridges

by Ed Barna

       Initially, the organizers of the Firs National Covered Bridge Conference in June had thought to have an evening celebration in the 186-foot, two-lane covered bridge at the Shelburne Museum.
       Then some of the more engineering-oriented people involved started calculating: 220 people, perhaps 180 pounds average, equals . . . . The organizers, confronted with the fact that they might be loading about 20 tons on the 158-year-old bridge, decided to use a rented tent instead.
       It was a heavy conference in more ways than one. Top academic historians, timber-framers, engineers, and agency officials came for the first ever conference on best practices for preserving covered bridges. According to coordinator Judy Hayward of Historic Windsor, Inc.'s Preservation Education Institute, people from 23 states and 7 countries attended.
       It was "the largest event that our organization has ever put together," Hayward said. Sponsoring it were the Federal Highway Administration, the National Park Service, and the University of Vermont's Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, with 12 other groups listed as "cosponsors."
       Behind the event was a growing consensus that the struggle to save the nation's roughly 1,000 remaining covered bridges (more than 100 of which are in Vermont) has entered a new phase. No one would simply demolish one now to make way for a new concrete-and-steel structure, but when poor maintenance combines with a demand that the old bridges carry modern traffic loads, "repairing" them all too often means replacing most of the timber and using historically inappropriate materials like glued laminates.
       As an unexpected validation of the conferees' work, Sen. James Jeffords gave the concluding remarks for the discussions--and made an unexpected announcement. He said the new federal transportation bill, continuing a program he had started, several years ago, would provide $50 million a year for six years to help state's rehabilitate their covered bridges.
       The nuts and bolts of the conference (or perhaps it would be better to say the joints and pegs) were sessions on ways of testing and assessing the conditions of timber structures, case studies of renovations, examinations of how bridges relate to tourism, looks at new materials and ways of fireproofing bridges, and so on. But the key moment came at the end, when everyone gathered in UVM's Billings Center theater to discuss, amend, and possibly adopt the Burlington Charter for the Preservation of Historic Covered Bridges.
       The exact statement, modified by comments made in the forum, will be released later. But in the end, the conferees voted almost unanimously (one dissenting voice) for a set of principles based on the following five priorities:
1. "To preserve the historic structural and material integrity of covered bridges to the maximum extent possible."
2. "To retain covered bridges for limited, protected use on roads whenever feasible and practical, and with the minimum possible compromises to historic structural and material integrity."
3. "To identify and preserve, to the maximum extent possible, all features that define the historic character of covered bridges, including but not limited to setting, approach roads, surrounding cultural landscapes, or viewsheds." 4. "To establish, whenever possible, partnerships among local, state, and federal governments and among non-profit organizations in order to provide the best opportunities for continued stewardship of covered bridges."
5. "To identify and preserve, whenever possible, examples of ingenuity in timber craftsmanship, unique practices or traditions designed to address specific problems on specific bridges. These practices and examples of craftsmanship are an important part of the history of America's historic covered bridges, and that tradition of ingenuity should be continued by future generations."
       Some thought wording like "whenever possible" should be taken out in favor of stronger statements."We can do it;" said one timber-framer, if that is clearly the goal.
       There were suggestions for other priorities: promoting tourism, educating the public, finding funding, making sure the wood taken out of old bridges during repairs finds respectful uses. The conference organizers, pressed for time, said these could be lumped into the original five statements as sub-categories.
       The final say will be with the National Park Service. The Burlington Charter is intended as a suggestion that the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Preservation, Rehabilitation. Restoration and Reconstruction--widely used in making decisions during work on Vermont's historic buildings--include specific recommendations for covered bridges.
       Assuming the Secretary of the Interior's office (which is in charge of the National Park Service) does develop such guidelines, the conference organizers suggested that they "be presented at the Second National Best Practices Conference for Historic Covered Bridges, time and place to be announced."
       Judging by people's remarks and the amount of networking that went on, a vote on whether to hold such a second conference might well have gained unanimous support.
[Ed Barna serves on the VCBS Board of Directors and is author Vermont's Covered Bridges, published by Countryman Press.]

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Joe Nelson, P.O Box 267, Jericho, VT 05465-0267
This file posted July 13, 2003