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Rockcliffe’s columns aloft to allow for porch repairs

The structural porch columns at Rockcliffe Mansion have been raised in order to allow the Mark Twain Construction Company of Boonville, Ind., to replace rotting wood below. Jonassen Structural Movers of Hartfield, Mo., was commissioned to lift the porch roof and  columns to make way for repairs. Contributed photo.


Louise Cruikshank exchanged wedding vows with Wlilliam H. Logan in June 1915, while standing on the porch of her father’s grand mansion overlooking the Mississippi River valley.

Today, that porch is undergoing major repairs.

The porch columns of the Cruikshank mansion, now known as Rockcliffe, are literally suspended in the air to allow a contractor access to replace rotting wood on the porch floor and foundation.

The project, which has been on the drawing board for about seven years, is being undertaken by the mansion’s owners, Warren Bittner and Juan Ruiz.

“When we purchased the property in 2010, everything seemed to be hunky dory,” Bittner said. Then, seven or eight years into their ownership, “we observed rain water coming through the ceiling of the front porch onto the southeast corner where the columns are. We investigated. When we looked out on the roof from the observatory above, instead of draining back to the house and going down the spouts, the rainwater was running over the sides of the built-in gutters above the porch and onto the columns and porch floor below.”

“The pillars were sitting on a wood floor. The joist system, all that wood began to rot, causing the large columns, which are very heavy, to slowly sink down and get worse and worse and worse.”

They contracted with Mark Twain Construction; which is owned by Mark Twain Chapman from Boonville, Ind. to do the carpentry repairs.

Chapman told Bittner and Ruiz that the porch must be jacked up so that he can make the necessary repairs.

They then reached out to Jonassen Structural Movers from Hartfield, Mo., a family that has been in the house-moving business for generations, Bittner said.

On Saturday night, Nov. 18, the Jonassen firm lifted the porch, under the supervision of the contractor, leaving the structural columns literally dangling in the air.

Ongoing project

Each year, as funds permit, Bittner and Ruiz are making repairs to the mansion’s porches. Thus far, repairs have been made to the west porch, off of the music room, and the kitchen porch, which was completed last year. After the current project is finished, they will move on to repairing the car port porch.

There used to be one big undivided veranda, which wrapped three of the four sides of the mansion. Once the final porch project is finished, “we will restore the circular porches” that were burned off in a fire in 1959, Bittner said.

During these projects, “the carpenter is following the original 1898 blueprints to the letter.”

Although identical in-kind materials are being used whenever feasible, an exception to that rule, is necessitated by product availability.

For example, “Cruikshank used old growth yellow pine tongue-and-groove wood” for the porch floor. “Old growth wood is no longer available; today, lumber yards only sell a new growth wood tongue and groove that rots away in a couple of years.

“Accordingly, we decided not to go with wood,” Bittner said, and instead they are going with a product approved by the Secretary of the Interior’s standards. The product is called Aeratis, a tongue-and-groove porch flooring. “It is made of PVC, and, when laid in a waterproof application specified by the manufacturer, water won’t get between the pieces of flooring and it literally lasts forever. This same product was used at Oak Alley Plantation near New Orleans; they replaced all of their wood porches with this material.”

While the mansion has been listed on the National Registry of Historic Places since 1980, and the owners have recently met with the state Historic Preservation Officer (SPO) in Jefferson City to review their plans, these repairs on the mansion probably will not qualify for historic tax credits (“HTC”) repairs on the mansion do not qualify for tax exemptions.

“The investment thresholds for qualifying for HTCs are exceedingly high, Bittner said, “Consequently, and unfortunately, we’re left only with sweat equity and earning the money as we go,” to fund the repairs. Funds are raised exclusively through guided tours and bed and breakfast accommodations.

“We are both the number one rated ‘thing to do’ and ‘B&B’ in Hannibal on TripAdvisor,” Bittner said.

"The guided tour of the  interior is all history based, about the Cruikshank family, the architecture of the building, art, furnishings that the family owned, the plumbing fixtures, the lighting fixtures, the wallpaper …  it just goes on and on,” Bittner said.

He describes the work involved in making repairs to the mansion “a labor of love. This building has so much history, and detail, and architecture; it's a masterpiece that John Cruikshank put together.”

John J. Cruikshank Jr., was married to Annie Louise Hart Nov. 2, 1886. Together, they had four daughters, Gladys, born in 1888, Louise, born in 1890; Helen, born in 1892; and Josephine, born in 1894.

John J. Cruikshank died March 20, 1924. On June 1, 1925, his daughter, Helen, had her wedding ceremony on the mansion’s porch, when she was married to Milton P. Knighton.

Another daughter, Gladys, chose a wedding ceremony inside the mansion, when she was married to Williams Warren in 1912.

Warren Bittner and Juan Ruiz, owners of the mansion, supplied this photo of Louise Cruikshank and Will Logan’s wedding party in June 1915. The photo was taken on the porch of the mansion built by her father, J.J. Cruikshank Jr., 1898-1900. From left, Josephine Cruikshank Kessler, sister of the bride; Williams Warren, brother in law of the bride; Gladys Cruikshank Warren, sister of the bride; the bride and bridegroom; Walter Logan; Helen Cruikshank, sister of the bride; and Sam Schutts.

Mary Lou Montgomery retired on the last day of 2014 as editor of the Hannibal Courier-Post, where she worked for 39 years.


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