By Morgan Simmons
GATLINBURG, Tenn. - As the historic preservation crew foreman for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gary Zbel oversees the construction and upkeep of 97 historic structures scattered throughout the Smokies.
Over the years Zbel and his crew have worked on everything from grist mills to log cabins, but nothing, he says, has been as challenging as rehabilitating the Appalachian Clubhouse.
Built in 1934, the 5,000-square-foot building in the park's Elkmont district served as headquarters for social gatherings among the community's summer residents. The building's siding was Douglas fir, and the tongue-and-groove flooring in the ballroom was oak and maple. The backside and corners of the lodge were damaged by water rot, but workers salvaged 80 percent of the building's original flooring.
Because the clubhouse had settled as much as 6 inches over the decades, the crew's first job last summer was to jack up the building and rebuild the rock foundation.
"We tried to retain as much of the historic fabric of the structure as we could," Zbel said. "A lot of the construction material they used was pretty random - not the kind of stuff you find at Home Depot. This was the biggest and most complex project we've ever done in the park."
Restoration of the clubhouse is 95 percent complete, with handicapped facilities still to be added.
Nearby, on the banks of the Little River in the section of Elkmont known as Millionaire's Row, crews are in the early stages of restoring the Spence Cabin.
The clubhouse and cabin are among 19 structures the National Park Service has targeted for preservation to create a museum community that tells the story of Elkmont from its days as a logging camp to its days as a summer resort.
Under the plan, the remaining 50 or so cabins will be removed and the area restored to its natural state. Photographic exhibits and information kiosks will be installed to create a self-guided walking tour of the historic district.
The Appalachian Clubhouse and Spence Cabin are the only Elkmont buildings that will have electricity and plumbing and be made available for public day use. Park officials say the rental fees from the two buildings will help pay for maintenance of the other cabins as they're restored. The clubhouse will be ready for public use this spring, while the Spence Cabin should be ready this summer.
The entire Elkmont plan - restoring all 19 structures, installing interpretive signs and removing the noncontributing buildings - is expected to cost $6.2 million. The project will proceed in phases as federal funding becomes available.
"We're at the point where the buildings have sound roofs and are stabilized," said park spokesman Bob Miller. "From now on, we'll be doing cost estimates and figuring out how to package these structures in the most efficient way to get the project done."