Bruce MacDonald is the President of Ashwood Restoration. He has worked with many notable historic site professionals, architects, and preservationists, including craftsmen at Historic Hudson Valley, Philip Johnson, Toshio Odate, Stuart Elliot, members the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and more. He is currently leading the restoration of structures at the Jay Estate which most recently include a 100+ year old Ice House. Here is his take on preservation from the perspective of a student, through his longtime partnership with the Jay Heritage Center, and beyond.
How did you find yourself at Jay Heritage Center?
Well that was in 1992. I had met Dee Dee Paschal, who was one of the five women who helped save the [Jay Estate], back maybe four years earlier at a New York State preservation conference. She was with Karen Kennedy, a preservation advocate within the County of Westchester Planning Department and [she] was the key to the fight, helping guide and inform the Jay Coalition. So Karen introduced me to Dee Dee. It was a two minute thing describing the site. Dee Dee said “We’ll call you when we get the site.” So I said “Thank you very much” and moved on. I was working on a project in White Plains in August when my phone rang. [Dee Dee] said, “The deal has gone through and we need you.” So that was the beginning. We started work doing emergency repairs. Someone had torn a third of the copper roof off the mansion. And the next day it was starting to rain so we had to scramble.
How were you drawn to this field?
My background is in the arts. I studied sculpture at Pratt Institute and have a BFA from there. I was drawn to I.M. Pei and Philip Johnson through architectural lectures. And at the same time my family was relocating and we built a house for my parents to move into. I [had] never picked up a hammer in my life – well certainly not around a building. As a trade, my mother was a schoolteacher and my father worked in the art department for Reader’s Digest. And so it was one of those things, I followed my nose. I was interested in making money after college and worked on my own for a while on older buildings. Preservation was a real social focus at that time – much like energy conservation is right now. Back then, preservation was the way to save cities. It was the new alternative to the disaster that had been urban renewal. It was a real movement and I became interested in that. I ended up working for four years at Historic Hudson Valley, learned a tremendous amount, built an 18th century building in costume with period tools. It was really fun – beards, boots, puffy shirts. And that was a great experience because it taught me about alternative techniques. A good example is at Philipsburg Manor – [they used] large timbers there. In order to cross-cut a timber, the shop had a huge circular saw. That tool would cut through the wood, but not very well. When we built that building we had to use a two man saw. And that tool would cut through [wood] as straight as an arrow. Even though it was two hundred years old it worked better than the new, very expensive saw we had. It was a new way of looking at the development of technology.
What is the most interesting thing you have restored here? Elsewhere? What are the most exciting memories of your career?
Well two things. The first was probably the most exciting moment I’ve had. I was sitting opposite Philip Johnson, designing a new sculpture base for the Glass House. There I was, designing this sculpture base with him, which was so exciting. [He was] the dean of American architecture. It was a great moment. We designed it and then I built it and he loved it. The idea was that it was a re-imagining of the original sculpture base that was made of plywood and was presenting some problems. [We wanted] to try and rethink that piece so it could last and become part of the collection, but still be his design. The other example of the most exciting thing I’ve done, in a very broad way, is to work here. The reason for that is that it’s a very long relationship. It’s been twenty-two years. This place [has] come from the ruins that it was [and] evolved into a really important piece of the cultural landscape here. And to be a part of that has been incredibly rewarding.
If you could identify the hardest part of restoration, what would it be?
There’s so many options (laughs). Preservation isn’t always exciting – it often is – but a lot of it is a little tedious. Finding people who want to work with traditional techniques and are interested in that is quite difficult because generally tradesmen, instead of using a hand plane to finish something off, want to use a belt sander. That’s the broadest example I can think of. But what I love is the combination of traditional techniques and introducing new technologies to try and extend the life of what we’re preserving as long as we can.
Have you ever encountered pieces beyond repair? What determines this?
Yeah, there is a tipping point. In some cases, people will look at something and say, “Well, this column for instance, if we were to have new columns milled it would cost x dollars. If the repairs are more, we should replace them.” I don’t agree with that. I think preserving as much of the original fabric is crucial and very possible, and ultimately it’s the cheapest thing to do. I’m convinced that with current materials, which are subpar, you will get into cyclical replacement instead of maintenance. And ultimately for an institution, which is looking way down the road, that is far more expensive.
You talked about using borate crystals to help waterproof wood, are there any other trades secrets like that you can share?
Magic (laughs). The use of epoxy [a type of adhesive] has been really crucial. We have a system that we use, which is a five part epoxy system. It is very versatile and has been a real magic bullet, but it has to be used very judiciously, otherwise you can exacerbate decay issues. But borates are pretty cool.
How did you choose the name of your company (Ashwood Restoration)?
I have a yellow sheet from a 1984 legal pad that I sat down with and started writing names. And the list goes right down the whole page. I looked them over and I liked the sound of [Ashwood Restoration]. It’s not about literal meaning; it’s about the whole sound. Maybe now I would call it Ashwood Preservation, because that’s really more [fitting]. But that idea didn’t really develop until later.
Can you name two projects that were particularly rewarding or compelling?
For me, the parts of this project [The Jay Mansion] that have been more interesting have been the sculptural restorations. So, a good example is the pediment at the south facade of the house. It’s a twenty-five foot wide carving. That involved an awful lot of sculpting, which I really enjoyed. The restoration of the front door – the carving on that was absolutely beautiful. And that door was originally 9 ‘6” in height. When it came back to us it was 6’ 8”. You can imagine the difficulties in trying to preserve everything you can, and yet [also trying to] put it all back together. There was a lot of carving involved in that. But it was very exciting, taking something that the beauty of the original carving was so obscured and seeing the paint removed and revealing the crispness of those details, and then replicating those in the egg and dart [pattern] making that match.
Have you had any mentors or been particularly influenced by anyone?
I would say Russel Watsky, who is a preservation roofing consultant. He has been a great example of someone with tremendous integrity and a great preservation approach to the various projects he’s been involved in, including the Glass House and hospital buildings on Ellis Island. When he had a company, he did all the roofing here for us. The other major influence was the Old House Journal, back when it first started in Brooklyn. It wasn’t glossy, it just came as a black and white newsletter. And it was incredibly informative and inspiring.
Photo above of Landy Erlick (Harvard ’19) interviewing Bruce MacDonald on the brick apron of the 1907 Van Norden Carriage House.