The pile drivers at the French Cultural Center had finally hit bottom.
Forty-three feet below ground – through a man-made mixture of sand, gravel and rubble, under an ancient riverbed of silt, seashells and peat, and into a seam of stiff, blue-gray marine clay – the massive metal rods the men were corkscrewing into the earth became firmly stuck.
Five such rods, aligned with one another like pips on a throwing dice, were spun into place to brace the 25,000-pound concrete pad needed to support the new elevator. Cement soon was poured, and a crew of masons began laying cinder-block walls that rose slowly toward the skylight.
The construction of the five-story elevator shaft is only the most dramatic of many transformations underway in the year-long renovation of the Center’s two adjacent buildings. After months of nerve-racking demolition and nail-biting regulatory review, the reconstruction and restoration work is thoroughly on the upswing.
The $6 million project will preserve the historic charm of 53 Marlborough Street and its attached neighbor, 300 Berkeley Street, while producing many benefits:
- Total classroom capacity for children and adults will increase by a third.
- The number of dedicated classrooms for private lessons will increase to three (from just one currently).
- One library room will be transformed into “The Salon” for French-only presentations and discussions.
- An overhaul of the kitchen will permit an expanded cooking and gastronomy program.
- Creation of a wine cellar will inaugurate a wine appreciation program.
- The elevator, combined with the previous installation of the Berkeley Street lift, will make the building entirely accessible for individuals with limited mobility.
- A sprinkler system will protect the entire 154-year-old structure – as well as the library’s priceless collection of over 30,000 volumes.
- An integrated, environmentally responsible heating and air-conditioning system will provide year-round comfort. (A post-Covid addition: The system will include internal UV lamps and other components to reduce the spread of pathogens.)
Nearly as striking as the elevator shaft is the transformation taking place on the ground-floor level, where the children’s suite and kitchen are located. There, walls were demolished and nearly every joist and floorboard were ripped up.
Age, moisture and vibration had eroded the tips of many of the wooden floor joists, as well as the masonry “pockets” in which they sat. Some joists were floating in the air, held up by nothing but the floorboards that they were supposed to be supporting.
The entire floor system was replaced and secured with fastening technology that didn’t exist in 1867, which is when both houses were built. (Andrew Johnson was in the White House, and there were only 37 U.S. states.)
New floors, walls, wiring and plumbing are now going into place. The site is a beehive of worker activity. Much remains to be done, but the momentum is all upward and forward.
Our goal was to reopen the Center by year-end. Delays due mainly to city regulatory reviews have pushed the reopening date into early 2022, but our contractor is working to recoup lost time.
Meanwhile, the Center continues to offer language classes, member gatherings and cultural events online. We also are organizing in-person member gatherings in ways that respect Covid-related requirements still in effect.
As the vaccination campaign advances and people become more comfortable getting together, we are researching ways to resume in-person language classes at other locations. Stay tuned for details!
We are grateful for your loyalty and support as work continues. We look forward to having you back in the renovated buildings – and taking a ride with you in our new elevator!
A special thank you to our capital campaign donors who have given $3,250,000 towards this project. Our goal is to raise $3.5M. If you are interested in donating, you can give online at https://frenchculturalcenter.org/donations/, or contact Joyce Grippen, Director of Development at email@example.com, or by telephone at 508-930-2525.
Chairman, Board of Trustees