Old Philomath College’s cupola seeing repairs because of a failing 155-year-old post

In place at the center of town for the past 155 years, the old Philomath College building with its brick walls and large octagonal cupola has served as the focal point of the community. The cupola’s original hand-hewn support posts that went in place during the building’s construction in 1866 have survived the decades.

Although most of the cupola’s structure remains sound, one of those posts has been deteriorating from water damage. The Benton County Historical Society received funding to repair the post through a grant from the Kinsman Foundation along with donations from members.

“The post has had water damage through the years and it still looked pretty good from the exterior … but our maintenance person was up there and discovered how punky it was inside,” said Mary Gallagher, BCHS collections manager. “Once we realized that … if one post starts going bad, you have that risk of it starting to at least lean.”

The cupola posts are a little over 30 feet in length and run from the floor of the attic up to the top of the belltower.

“We were really hoping we were just dealing with sistering in a part of a post, but it’s looking like we may need a far larger piece,” said Gallagher, adding that a project of a larger scope wasn’t budgeted. “When you think about it, it’s pretty amazing, the whole thing. The upstairs, the whole construction up there, is remarkable.”

An up-close look at the 1866 post
An up-close look at the portion of an 1866 post that was removed this week as part of a repair project. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The BCHS hired Confluence Design & Construction, owned by local resident Scott McClure, to head up the effort to repair the post. Aerotract Aerial Surveying flew a drone overhead for a close look and some concerns surfaced that the copper roof could be leaking.

The paint was also tested for lead and to McClure’s surprise, there was none. Apparently, it had been removed at some point in the past.

Then earlier this week, McClure discovered that the impacted post had more damage than expected.

“It was obvious that rain was getting in through the louvers down at the bottom,” McClure said. “But now that we’re up 8 feet from the bottom, it looks like Swiss cheese; it’s obviously been leaking for a while.”

McClure said an engineer will need to design a solution.

“We’re going to try and come up with a couple of different scenarios,” he said. “It would be best to replace it with all wood, but that’s likely more involved and therefore more expensive. If we introduce some steel, that’s not the historically preferred option, probably, but it may be the most practical solution.”

The building is on the National Register of Historic Places, which means there are standards in place, but McClure said exterior appearances draw most of the concern. On an interior, out-of-sight piece like a post, steel could even be acceptable.

“We’re going to have to talk about whether it’s worth trying to do an assessment,” McClure said. “I think there’s a minimally invasive assessment process that can determine the condition of the existing posts without having to tear things apart. … So (I’m) waiting on the engineer to help us come up with some options.”

McClure did provide a few possibilities on what options might be available, such as filling the post with epoxy or taking the old piece out entirely and replacing it, the latter option being a little more involved.

The original estimate on the project length had been a month.

“I think things are pretty stable for the most part,” Gallagher said about the structure. “For a building of this age, it’s pretty remarkable that it is this stable.”

Philomath College opened to students in 1867 and remained until 1929. The building’s size expanded in 1905 when a west wing was added and in 1907 with the construction of an east wing.

Through the years after the college’s closure, the building was used for church services and eventually fell into disrepair in the 1960s. The future of the building was in doubt until local citizens saved it in the 1970s. The Benton County Historical Society acquired the property and opened the museum in 1980.

Philomath
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