Bridge project not too far for Zionsville firm: Timber-frame specialist has big role in rebuilding Parke County landmark

November 6, 2006

The Bridgeton Grist Mill in southern Parke County sat so close to a covered bridge that was destroyed by arson last year that firefighters hosed down the historic structure to keep it from burning, too.

The mill, which has churned out flour since 1863, predated by five years the wooden trestle considered one of the most scenic of the 31 covered bridges in the western Indiana county.

But a replicated bridge finished in early October resembles the original so closely that residents there can hardly fathom it's a duplicate.

"It's just absolutely beautiful," mill owner Mike Roe said. "I still have a hard time believing it's [a replacement]. It looks so much like the old bridge, it's just unbelievable."

The Beamery in Zionsville contributed greatly to the authenticity. The company, which specializes in timber frame design and manufacturing, provided complex fab- rication work to ensure an accurate portrayal of the historic bridge.

Just 2 years old, The Beamery was spawned by architectural firm Smith Lake and Watters Inc., which shares the same quaint address on Main Street in Zionsville above the Cobblestone Restaurant.

SLW's partners are Barry Smith, president, and vice presidents Ron Lake and David Watters. Smith, 59, and Lake, 58, were members of Ball State University's inaugural architecture class in 1971 and later worked together at the Indianapolis office of Kansas City, Mo.-based HNTB Corp.

The two were in partnership with another architect when, in 1997, they hired Watters, 44, who brought the timber-framing experience. The Fort Wayne native, who earned a degree from the University of Colorado, School of Architectures Environmental Design program, learned the craft while working in New England.

After a stop in Arkansas and a return to Colorado, Watters brought his family back to Indiana. He, Smith and Lake formed SLW in 2000 following the departure of a partner at the previous firm. The Beamery ensued in 2004.

"David had this passion for it," Smith said of his timber-framing affinity. "It's been so intertwined with SLW, but now we're trying to take it off on its own."

Timber framing is the modern equivalent of the traditional half-timbered construction in which beams provide a visible skeletal frame that supports an entire building. Much to Watters' chagrin, timber framing often is confused with the building of log homes. The method is used in structures ranging from barns to European cathedrals.

The Massachusetts-based Timber Frame Guild, a not-for-profit founded in 1984 to promote the niche, boasts 1,700 members, including Watters, from 200 companies around the world.

SLW uses the technique in some of the custom homes the firm designs. But as Smith intimated, the partners are beginning to nudge The Beamery out of the nest. The offshoot accounted for roughly $500,000 of the $3 million in revenue SLW earned in 2005.

It shared a $125,000 contract to fabricate and assemble bridge beams with contractor Dan Collom in Bridgeton. Collom has rehabbed covered bridges in Parke County for 30 years and built the new bridge's two skeletons.

With a span of 245 feet to reach the banks of Big Raccoon Creek, it had to be constructed in separate pieces. Collom's crew erected the arches, and workers for The Beamery put the roof on. The two companies finished the job together by putting on the siding and laying the flooring.

SLW and The Beamery have a partnership with C.W. Construction Inc. in tiny Fayette in southern Boone County to construct its projects.

After learning of the April 2005 blaze, and the fund-raising effort to rebuild the bridge, Watters expressed to organizers his interest in becoming involved. Volunteer Ben Hill, a retired architect, did the actual design work.

The Bridgeton Covered Bridge Association accepted the bid from Watters and Collom instead of a $175,000 offer from the Timber Frame Guild to complete just half the work. The association raised more than $250,000 to fund the $200,000 project. The remainder is earmarked for future landscaping and maintenance.

"It was such an emotional project for the people of Bridgeton," Watters said. "There was an incredible amount of interest."

That included donations of time, money and services.

Steve Arnold's close connection to Bridgeton prompted the president of the MMS and Associates Inc. architectural and engineering firm in Terre Haute to lend its surveying expertise. He has family there and considers the bridge "special."

"[The Beamery] did an excellent job; they were just top-notch," he said. "If you came back this year, I doubt you would even know it burned. It was just a great project."

The state donated 126 60-year-old tulip poplar trees from the Green-Sullivan State Forest. A logging crew from C.C. Cook & Son Lumber Co. in Reelsville gave their time to cut, load and haul the logs.

Fabrication and construction took about three months, with a goal to finish before the 50th annual Covered Bridge Festival that ran Oct. 13-22.

Besides the covered bridge, The Beamery fabricated the timber framing for the Eagle Creek Earth Discovery Center slated to open in April. Locally based Brandt Construction Inc. is the project manager.

"I have no complaints," said Chirag Patel, a Brandt partner, of the company's work. "[The park foundation] wanted to use natural products, and they could provide that."

The Parke County project may turn out to be one of the more unusual in the young company's history. A covered bridge hasn't been built there since 1910.
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