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Andrew Jackson’s Million-Dollar Face Lift

After almost two centuries of wear and tear, weather damage, gnawing insects and the footsteps of millions of passing tourists, Andrew Jackson's home was ready for a face lift.

Visitors to The Hermitage this holiday season will find the historic home wrapped in scaffolding with crews working to repair the damage of time, tornadoes and past renovation attempts. The $1 million project is funded by state grants and local donations and is expected to continue through December and possibly into January.

"With any building this age, every 30 or 40 years or so, you're going to need to undertake a pretty major restoration," said Howard J. Kittell, president and CEO of The Hermitage, the home Andrew Jackson began building in 1819.

The last major renovation to the building's exterior took place in 1968. In the 41 years that have followed, rain has seeped through leaky gutters and cracks in the bricks, soaked into walls and wooden facades, weakened brick walls until they sagged, dripped through the porch columns, warped interior walls and turned wooden windowsills into rotting sponges.

The home's wooden face - the distinctive Greek Revival-style portico, columns and entablature - has been peeled back to expose the bones of the home Jackson built before he became the nation's seventh president. Workers are replacing rotting beams, repairing insect and water damage and working to seal the building so that all their hard work doesn't have to be repeated 40 years down the road.

"We don't want it to look new, but we want it to look crisp - to recapture the way it would have looked in his time," said Tony Guzzi, director of preservation and collections at The Hermitage.

Guzzi has pored over old photos and designs, trying to ensure that the repairs do nothing to change the historical accuracy of the home, and the 170-year-old slave cabin - Alfred's Cabin - that is being restored at the same time.

Refurbishing a site as old and historic as The Hermitage is a painstaking process.

When bricks are replaced, they come from an out-of-state firm that uses traditional methods and high-tech techniques to ensure that the colors of the new bricks match the original. The Hermitage learned the importance of this the hard way after the 1968 repairs, when work crews used dyed concrete bricks - the bricks were sturdy, but faded over the years to a jarring pink color that sticks out like a sore thumb on the house's fa├žade.

"It looks like the house has mange," Guzzi said mournfully, studying the patches of "pink bricks," as the crew has disdainfully dubbed them. The pink bricks will be removed after the damaged wall sections are repaired - if there's enough money left in the budget.

Alfred's Cabin has been levered up, and workers are reinforcing the original logs - tree-ring dating shows they were cut down around 1841 - with newer but historically appropriate materials: cedar chips, reproductions of period nails and a wattle-and-daub mixture of lime, sand and fibers designed to mimic the pig hair that used to seal up the cracks between logs on the slave cabins.

The work crews of Midwest Maintenance, the Ohio company performing the renovations, are accustomed to working on historic structures - they restored Abraham Lincoln's birthplace cabin, as well.

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