An Old Fort Gets a New Look

By Scott Sidler November 30, 2015

My company recently finished the restoration of the windows at Fort Coombs in Apalachicola, FL and I wanted to share the project with you. These were some unique windows from a fort with a lot of history and meaning to the residents, and I felt like the story was one that needed to be told.

Fort Coombs Armory
Fort Coombs Armory ca. 1963

Fort Coombs was built in 1901 when the original fort on that same spot burned down after only 2 years of service. The original fort was built from “simulated brick” which I can only assume was pieces of wood designed to look like brick. Obviously, it was not a very effective construction for a fort.

Fort Coombs is a unique example of fortress architecture in Florida with its solid massing of the walls, slit windows, and a corner tower that resembles a medieval watchtower. It makes for an imposing military structure.

In addition to being the military heart of the Florida panhandle long before the military bases of today it has also been the social nexus of the town.

We spoke with one woman in her 80s who had grown up in the town and said they used to hold dances at the fort. It was at one of those dances in 1946 that she had her first kiss.

Those kind of stories really connected me to the town. If you’ve never been to Apalachicola it’s got a small town feel that is really special.

The local speciality, of course, is the seafood pulled right from the Gulf waters. Not to mention their world famous Apalachicola Bay oysters which are huge, delicious and dirt cheap since their grown locally. If you have a chance to visit definitely stop by and see the folks at Hole in the Wall Seafood where we spent almost every day for lunch.

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The Restoration

Destroyed windowOur work on-site was the remove the old window sashes, restore the jambs and mechanicals, and build new replica sashes to match the originals exactly. Restoring the sashes would have been my first choice, but this is what the specs called for so we were happy to oblige.

Some of the windows were in decent shape, others were pretty neglected and some were just plain missing in action. My favorites were all the window AC units that were installed by chopping a third of the whole window off and throwing it away. What a mess.

We rolled into town and removed 30 windows in just 2 days and brought them back to our shop to start work. I decided to make the project a collaboration between my company Austin Home Restorations, Steve at Wood Window Makeover and Angel at American Window Preservation. Steve and Angel are two people who I respect enormously and working together on the project allowed us to keep up with our residential clients while doing a large commercial project like this.

Steve’s team was tasked with building the replacement sashes, Angel’s crew would work on-site restoring the jambs and mechanics and my company would glaze, finish, paint and install the new windows as well as oversee the whole project.

 

Building Historic Replicas

Historic Replica Windows
New window sash made from Accoya

Steve’s crew is fantastic at building curved windows and since almost everyone of these windows had some curved portion to it I figured he would be the one to get the job done right.

We used Accoya for the wood which is one of my favorites because of its ability to resist bugs and rot. It also is extremely stable and doesn’t swell or shrink like other woods which makes it perfect for windows and doors.

It didn’t take long for them to crank out the windows and get them over to us. We had to be very diligent in getting precise measurements so that our new sash would fit in the old openings.

 

Restoring the Jambs

Angel’s crew didn’t have as easy a time working on the jambs. A lead-abatement crew had to precede him and when he got on site the jambs were pretty torn up from the use of grinders and other terribly abrasive methods of paint removal.

If you want to read about some smart ways to remove lead paint (rather than using grinders) click here.

It was frustrating, but he still had a job to do and Angel’s team fought through some very rainy days to get the jambs ready for the new windows to go in. They replaced rotted sills and made all kind of epoxy repairs and dutchman repairs to get the jambs back into shape.

 

The Final Install

Once we had the windows back at our shop from Steve it didn’t take long for my team to cut a bunch of curved glass and get them glazed and painted up and ready for install. Once we loaded the sashes in a trailer and hauled them the five hour drive up to the site my nerves really went into overdrive.

“Did we measure correctly?”

“Did Steve build them exactly as we measured?”

“What did we forget to bring?”

Out of town jobs always make me crazy because if we forget something it’s so hard to find a replacement sometimes.

Restored Windows
The finished windows ready for another hundred years of service.

When we got on site the windows ended up being a little big for the jambs (which is a better problem to have than them being too small!) so it took us a lot longer to install since every sash had to be trimmed a bit.

For the trimming we used a track saw, which is the only way to trim a perfectly straight line in my opinion. It worked great! Except that you can’t cut a radius with a track saw. For that we used the belt sander.

Over the course of four days my crew and I slowly pieced the windows back together. Every window felt like a victory when it was roped and slide up and down smoothly. 1 down, 29 to go; 2 down 28 to go! It was slow but satisfying.

The slitted tower windows overlooking Apalachicola Bay (done), the tall double-hungs on the mezzanine where families would cheer on the local basketball team in the 1950s and 60s (done). The office windows on the street side that had been chopped into bits for AC units (done). The fully arched windows in the 1930s addition to the fort (done). It was all coming together.

 

What it All Means

While the team was tuning up the last few windows I went outside to see what we had accomplished. It was incredible! The windows that had given Fort Coombs a black eye before were now the most stunning feature on the 114 year-old fort.

The fort looked inviting and healthy again. Revitalized, reinvigorated, restored! And to those who call what we do “hysterical” preservation I say, ask the residents of Apalachicola how they feel. Ask them what Fort Coombs means to them. And tell me if those memories are not something worth saving and treasuring for another century.

 

I’ve included a gallery of before, during, and after shots of the project. I hope you enjoy reading about the process as much as we did working on the windows. Click on any of the photos below for a larger version.

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4 thoughts on “An Old Fort Gets a New Look”

  1. Looks lovely, Scott! Nice work! Apalachichola was a favorite place to go to when I was a student at FSU…nice to know that local history has been saved!

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