Preserving the Swanton House
Learn about the efforts to preserve the Swanton House, Decatur.
Historic structures require continual maintenance and money.
As stewards of the Swanton House, we have maintained it since 1970. We use the Swanton House for our annual school program – History Quest – where students experience living history inside the homes. This immersive program is always popular with Decatur and DeKalb school children and their teachers. It is also open by appointment to DHC members, researchers, genealogists and descendants.
Performers at History Quest, October 2023.
Early in the year, a massive tree smashed through the Swanton House’s roof causing extensive damage. Of course, we had insurance on the structure, but this uprooted tree presented an opportunity to see what else we could do to preserve this cornerstone piece of DeKalb’s history.
The roof was swiftly replaced and we also arranged for some special carpentry to restore the custom millwork on the second floor ceiling. Rain accumulation and ground saturation in this low-lying area can be problematic, so it was again time for mold remediation.
Tarp over Swanton House roof after tree removal.
Photo taken January 2023.
Swanton House roof replaced and freshly painted and repaired.
Photo taken November 2023.
Tree damage to the historic wood plank ceiling on the second floor of the Swanton House.
Photo taken January 2023.
Some of the custom millwork installed to replace damaged historic wood ceilings on the second floor of the Swanton House. The original boards are not standard – they had to be milled to fit the existing width and thickness of the boards surrounding them.
Inside, the walls and ceilings are either hand-planed wood boards or old plaster, and have not been painted since it was moved over 50 years ago. New moisture came into the structure with the tree damage, and the loose paint issue accelerated. It was clear we needed to repaint the entire house before History Quest. Afterwards, our painter said he had never done so much prep work in his entire life, especially the scraping.
Left – Extensive paint failure and plaster damage to the historic plaster walls in the front dining room of the Swanton House. All walls and ceilings in the two front rooms and hallway required extensive scraping and skim coating with plaster in order to repair the surface and prepare it for painting. Right – Accelerated paint failure on all of the hand-planed board in the back two rooms. The situation was similar upstairs where all walls and ceilings are also wood boards.
Repaired and painter plaster in the dining room. Scraped and repainted hand-planed boards in the back bedrooms. Photo taken November 2023.
Finally, with all of this hard work accomplished, we came to terms with the fact that the HVAC unit was at the end of its lifespan. It was replaced with a new state-of-the-art unit, complete with an air scrubber to keep mold spores at bay. With some carpentry and cleaning added to the mix, the grand total for all of this work was $69,707.
With the smashed roof as the precipitating event, we acted swiftly to accomplish much work, but now we need your help! Not only to replenish our reserves, but also to help us keep the lights on and maintain the structure for future generations!
The average annual cost of maintaining the Swanton House, Biffle Cabin and Thomas Barber Cabin is $20,400. This includes landscaping, utilities (at commercial – not home prices), maintenance, and services such as pest, rodent and termite control.