O’LYN Roofing Chosen to Preserve Historic Willard House and Clock Museum

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O’LYN Roofing has been selected to help preserve the renowned clock collection at the Willard House and Clock Museum in Grafton, Massachusetts. Work will include installation of a synthetic cedar shake roof.

The Willard House & Clock Museum

That’s what people love about the Willard House – that they’re stepping back in time.

O’LYN Roofing, New England’s premiere roofing specialist, has been hired to install a new synthetic cedar shake roof at the Willard House and Clock Museum in Grafton, whose priceless collection of colonial-era clocks was threatened by water damage.

It is a story about time; and the beauty of the instruments we measure it by.

It’s about how the technology of a bygone era is intersecting with today’s state-of-the-art building techniques to safeguard the legacy of a famed New England clockmaker.

In the sleepy town of Grafton, Massachusetts, stands the Willard House and Clock Museum, home to over 80 Willard clocks, timeless treasures that are all the creations of Simon Willard and his family of famous clockmakers. This is the oldest clock factory in the country, and a visit here is literally a step back in time.

The Willard House celebrates the work of Simon Willard – along with his four brothers and their father Benjamin, who pioneered the clock industry in colonial America. By the end of the 18th century, Simon had become the premiere clockmaker of his time, even working directly with President Thomas Jefferson. His clocks were so prized that even during his own lifetime, they were copied and counterfeited.

Some of Simon's notable surviving clocks reside in the Old State House in Boston, the gallery clock in Old Supreme Court Chamber in Washington, DC, as well as the Roxbury tall clock in the Oval Office of the White House. Such priceless timepieces need to be preserved and protected from damage.

The clocks were not fully protected, though, after a 2011 winter storm and the ravages of time combined to cause the cedar shake roof to leak at the Willard House and Clock Museum, threatening the precious collection inside. Museum Director, Patrick Keenan, recalls discovering the leak:

“Our building restorer, Ron Votta, and I were showing the museum to Ludvig Oechslin, Director of Switzerland’s Musée International d’Horlogerie. It had been a bad winter and as we came into the workshop, we saw water pouring onto a wall containing rare clocks. It wasn’t yet leaking onto the clocks, but it was close. We knew we had to act quickly to move them out of harm’s way. And of course, they’re very delicate instruments, so it wasn’t the easiest task.”

Once the priceless clocks were moved to safety, the Museum set its sights on how to properly restore the roof. This is a place, after all, that houses one of the largest and most significant clock collection in the United States. It is a place that bears testament not only to the history of colonial America, but also to remarkable technological advances developed by the house’s namesake, Simon Willard.

In many ways, Simon could be considered the Steve Jobs of his time. At a time when the clock was cutting edge technology as well as an enormous symbol of status and wealth, Simon improved upon it in ways that would change people's lives. He made clocks smaller, simpler, and most importantly, developed a mechanism that didn’t have to be wound every day, but instead, could last 8 days. As much as we now take for granted knowing the time, in his era this was a major technological advancement.

Because the Willard House’s original structure was several hundred years old, the Museum’s trustees wanted to insure that any renovations would retain the building’s original look.

“Maintaining the house’s authentic feel was very important to us,” said Museum Director, Patrick Keenan. “That’s what people love about the Willard House – that they’re stepping back in time.”

Ron Votta, of Atlantic Construction Management, was put in charge of the project, and has carefully worked to maintain the Willard House and Clock Museum’s period detail while overseeing the needed updating.

“We’re reinforcing the structure in ways that won’t be seen. Outside, there’ll be exposed turnbuckles and tie rods that will look like the period. And we’re adding cast iron stars, typical of many 18th century buildings.”

To renovate the museum's cedar shake roof, Votta contacted O'LYN Contractors, Inc. of Norwood, MA. After careful consideration, it was decided to replace the traditional cedar shake roof with a state-of-the-art composite shake shingle.

OLYN’s Production Manager, Todd Mellor, explains that there were several important factors to consider before deciding on the synthetic shake. “It was chosen because it will not only keep the same look and maintain the building’s historic integrity, but it will also provide more of a fire retardant surface than the material it is replacing. We had to bring in a structural engineer to determine how best to reinforce the building to make sure it could handle the additional weight of the synthetic roof, and we’re confident that this is the way to go.”

For Ron Votta, the opportunity to help conserve the Willard House and Museum for future generations is a personal passion. An avid collector of clocks and watches himself, Votta says that for him, the attraction of these old instruments is their history. “It’s not only a timepiece. To see a clock running, it’s almost like a heartbeat. You have to admire the workmanship, the precision that’s gone into this.”

It’s that same craftsmanship and precision that is going into the renovation of the Willard House itself. Currently, work is proceeding to reinforce the structure. On Monday March 26, the new, synthetic cedar shake roof installation will begin, insuring that the Willard House and Clock Museum remains a true American classic, one that’s being updated to meet the needs time.

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Mark Negron
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