Sunday, May 10, 2009

PCLS Interview: Rudy Christian

Rudy Christian is currently executive director of the Preservation Trades Network as well as a partner and president of Christian & Son timber framers. Rudy was a past president of the Timber Framers Guild. His interview here will be followed up in a few weeks with an interview of his son and business partner, Carson Christian.

There is nothing quite so amazing as spending an afternoon at a pre-bid walk about, or in a remote church in Poland, or Kentucky, or at the Center of the Universe, with Rudy passionately exploring and explaining the workings of the frame structure to everyone present, at times including his competition. – Ken Follett

See also: Rudy's PTN blog at Traditional Building, A Place for Trades.

Where do you live these days?

Center of the Universe, Burbank, OH.

What is it that you tell people that you do for a living?

Depends on who asks. I have lots of hats, and like my shoes, I try not to wear the same one for two days in a row. When I’m talking to a potential customer I say I’m the president of Christian & Son, Inc. When I’m talking to a reporter, sometimes I’m the President of Christian & Son, Inc. and sometimes I’m the executive director of the Preservation Trades Network. I also have a hat that says timber framer and one that says carpenter, but my favorite one says non-profit junky.

Tell us something we do not know.

Gambrel barn roofs were developed as a response to the hay track. The hay track was patented in 1872, when most areas of the country already had barns with gable roofs, which were built for storing hay that was stacked using pitchforks. Most barns built for pitchfork hay storage had side walls between 14’ and 16’ tall. Using a hay track to load hay meant that the haystacks could be much taller, so after 1880 barns were built with 18’ to 24’ side walls. The older barns had to be modified to accommodate the taller haystacks, and the gambrel roof was the most common solution.

How did you get into doing what you do?

After I decided that spending my life as an engineer was not going to make me happy, I started messing around with carpentry projects. My grandfather built an entire hotel/motel complex in Michigan, and I spent a lot of my summers there as a child. Later I realized that my great-grandfather was a Zimmerman and I was lucky enough to visit the family home he built in Germany. So I guess it was somewhat inevitable I would end up building.

How I got into timber framing was a bit more serendipitous. I’m lucky enough to have a wife/life partner who is not only perceptive but enjoys working with me and reads Fine Homebuilding. After leaving engineering school and drifting into carpentry work I ended up running my own business, named Mycroft Homes. Mycroft was Sherlock Holmes’s smarter brother, but pretty much no one ever got that. The business was successful enough, but Laura could tell it was not quite what I needed to be satisfied or challenged to make me happy.

One day she came to me with a little article in Fine Homebuilding about a timber frame workshop at Kenyon College in Gambier Ohio. We didn’t really know what we were getting into, but we had managed to collect some antique barn builders’ tools, so we signed up and I took the workshop. It was being taught by several guys from Vermont and New Hampshire and was lead by Ed Levin, who I consider my mentor. It was blazing hot, and we worked all day on an asphalt parking lot from dawn to dusk and never stopped smiling. I decided I wanted to do that for a living; something that made me smile. It does.

Of what projects are you particularly proud?

Thomas Edison Lab Re-Relocation

Louis Bromfield’s Springhouse – “Preservation with Prisoners”

What was the most interesting project that you worked on? Why was it interesting?

The Detroit Farmers Market was and still is the most interesting project we’re involved in as a company. It is, to my knowledge, the only timber frame farmers market still in existence and the most ornate timber frame I have ever had the honor to actually work on.

What is your favorite and least favorite part?

My most favorite part is the fact that once it is reconstructed in Greenfield Village at the Henry Ford museum, the farmers market building will be enjoyed by many vistors for generations to come.

My least favorite part is the fact that after three years in storage the project finally became active exactly at the same time the recession hit, so it is on indefinite hold.

What happened on the best and the worse day?

The best day was when my son Carson and I spent the whole day assessing and documenting the building so he could model it in AutoCAD. It was wonderful to see him so curious about the complexity and decoration and so willing to take on the challenge of modeling it so it could be accurately entered into a relational database during deconstruction for storage.

The worst day was when we returned from spending the July 4th holiday back home in Burbank. Just prior to the holiday the company we were working with, which provided all of the heavy equipment and operators, decided to open a large hole in a section of non-historic brick wall so they could get their equipment inside. When we returned we saw the damage done by vandals who used the hole to get in. Many of the ornate, hand-carved filigree snowflakes which were part of the infill decoration in the braces had been sawn out and stolen. It was sickening to see. They were never recovered.


The members of the Timber Framers Guild and the Preservation Trades Network, without whom I would not be where I am today.

Gerard Lynch has inspired me to work tirelessly at preserving the trades. Lisa Sasser has inspired me to help people understand the value of knowing what is really important to them, and stay on course to get it. And then there is this fellow Bohunk who has inspired me to realize the true value of networking.

If there is one thing that you can say is important? What is it and why is it important? Who cares?

Preserving the traditional trades is important. It is important because it provides insight into the past, which is our access to understanding the society in which we live and the culture we have created. People who are stewards of historic properties care, if they realize that maintaining them requires the same skills as building them in the first place. People with children or grandchildren care, if they want the world we are passing on to them to contain the works of great people and great minds who have been living and worked in it for millennia, which can stimulate the children’s minds and challenge them to do good work.

What advice would you give to a young person starting out?

Be honest before you are anything else.

Do you enjoy travel, or staying in one place?

Travel to foreign counties has changed the way I see the world in which I live. It has motivated me to make my world a better place.

Is there any extra special historic site that you want to visit, and if so, why?

The timber frame temples of Japan. I have met the men who are descendants of those who built them, and I want to see the work of those great men.

Education… what one thing do you think was the most interesting part of your education? Where?

Homeschooling our son, Carson. I learned more about education doing that than in all my own years in the public school system.

What one book have you read that you would recommend?

Understanding Wood, by R. Bruce Hoadley

What one book would you tell everyone to ignore?

Anything by Eric Sloan, unless you just look at the sketches.

Do you prefer artwork or music to books?

Only when I’m overcome by a wonderful piece of art or a great piece of music, but I would never give up my books for them. My books help me talk to people. I tend to buy books about things I’m studying, learning or places I’m traveling to. The books help me explain what I’m talking about, which often isn’t easy for people to understand without a picture or written description. I enjoy writing very much and am actually working on writing a book.

Do you mind telling us a bit about how your family puts up with your career and deviant interests?

Since we have a family business and a family estate, we’re all in this together. I count on them to help keep me focused.

What do you like to do when you are not doing this?

Anything that involves fine woodworking. Our home is an 1815 timber frame church that we deconstructed and relocated from Chenango Forks, NY to the Center of the Universe. We have done most of the work ourselves or with friends, so there are lots of woodworking challenges to keep me occupied.

What is your favorite music? Do you play any instruments? Can you hum?

Live acoustic jam sessions where folk or blues is being played can put me in a very happy state of mind. Since we had to give up our Chickering baby grand piano when we moved out of Akron, I haven’t played much music. I hope to remedy that soon. I played tenor saxophone in high school and was told I had talent, but I don’t have a sax anymore and probably never will. I prefer to whistle badly over humming, but humming keeps me from hearing my ears ring.

If we left you alone what would you do next?

Try to find work for my crew. They are fine craftsmen, and they don’t enjoy or deserve to be without work.

What is your favorite tool?

My six-foot folding rule, which lives in my rule pocket and is always ready for work.

Do you have anyone that you want mentioned here?

My wife Laura is the wisest person I have ever met. What she is doing with me is a mystery.

How do you come at teaching others, at passing on your experience and knowledge?

I use numerous ways to try to pass on knowledge, but I think what’s more important is to motivate people to believe they can learn a trade. They should try as many trades as possible until the one that fits them becomes obvious. We are all born with a tradesperson inside. What is important is to learn how to connect with that part of your being at the earliest age possible. I believe children can learn to use tools before they learn to speak.

We understand that you recently joined the Central Ohio Antelope Rescue Running Squad... and that your most recent volunteer efforts were captured on camera here:

Crisis of Significance

One of the struggles within the historic preservation industry is the interface that all practitioners have with the mass-produced commodity forces of modern life -- the dictation of people as anonymous -- finding our way past the shallowness of pervasive anonymity -- reintegration of significance into our lives... kinda like adaptive re-use for humans.

A final draft of a final video by Kevin Champion for Digital Ethnography at Kansas State University (Dr. Mike Wesch - Spring 2009). For more about where this video came from, you can check out the paper from which it was created: A crisis of significance.

Crisis of Significance by Kevin Champion is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.