One hundred years ago, Guglielmo Marconi, the “Father of Wireless Radio” and his team lived, ate and worked here at the junction Old Comers Road and Orleans Road in Chatham, operating the busiest ship-to-shore radio station in the world.
Overlooking Stage Harbor, the regal brick structures were virtually at the center of the trans-Atlantic universe back then. Over the years, however, the buildings were abandoned and fell into disrepair.
That is until a group of ambitious Chatham residents, mostly retired executives, engineers and managers, was inspired in 1999 to resurrect the Operations and former Hotel buildings as the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center, CMMC.
The fledging group, having helped convince the town to purchase the property, turned their vision into a fundraising campaign that also leveraged Chatham Community Preservation grants to restore the exterior of the National Register of Historic Places buildings.
It took a full decade before CMMC was able to lease the two buildings and raise sufficient funds to complete the massive rehabilitation, of the interiors into the “Marconi-RCA” Museum and Education Center, painstakingly designed to recreate ambiance of 1914.
Rick Roy, owner of Rick Roy Construction – a longtime Chatham resident and active member of the Homebuilders & Remodelers Association of Cape Cod – entered the story, early on to provide guidance and design, illustrating the organization’s mantra of “Building Community.”
Roy’s knowledge, skills, staff, resources, dollars and passion became indispensable building blocks for the maritime center.
“Rick donated so much to this project, beginning with its design. We couldn’t have done it without him,” said Frank Messina, Project Manager and VP of CMMC, who worked hand in hand with Roy during restoration and renovation of both the Operations and the former Hotel Nautilus building.
The original ceilings had to be dropped for sprinklers, most of the original doors were preserved, as well as the old moldings, lead paint was removed by certified specialists. About a half dozen original doors were refinished, as was the fireplace. All the new hardware was designed to mimic the original.
Modern community space – such as a learning room and kitchen – had to be accommodated while preserving the integrity and aesthetics of the original living areas.
Not only did Roy supervise a meticulous recreation of the building’s interior architecture and design, from door entryways to moldings, but he constantly had to address the inevitable surprises that came with rehabilitating a century old building.
Among the biggest challenges was meeting modern energy conservation codes. Despite 15-inch brick walls, the structure was not compliant. “They didn’t build with insulation back then, just plaster,” explained Kraycir, CMMC, Executive Director.
The most significant obstacle turned out to be installing an elevator for the Hotel building’s three floors, while preserving the structure’s original blueprint and integrity.
Each step of the way, Roy worked with the Chatham Historical Commission and representatives of the Marconi Center Board, especially Frank Messina.
Roy and his team were intent to preserve an especially dramatic arched doorway while meeting modern handicap-flow requirements. He also constructed a replica door with hardware since the original had been missing since World War II.
All this was done with an eagle eye toward budget. “As a result, Rick and all his subcontractors went well beyond by donating much of their time and materials,” said Messina.
“No shortcuts were ever taken, despite limited funds,” he added. “For instance, the floors were restored by scrubbing the surfaces and staining only some areas to make them match.”
When a rotted beam was discovered, it needed special engineering work to design appropriate supports without compromising the original structure. Codes required Roy to pull out the original back stairs because they were too narrow and replace them. Deeper footings were needed in the basement
When it came to the elevator, Roy’s team had to make substantial changes to the building, cutting through support members and redistributing stresses, and extending it above the original roof to accommodate the shaft. “We know Rick spent his own money on the elevator given its complexity,” said Kraycir.
His understanding of building codes, rapport with the historic commission and personal commitment to the structure’s historical significance all were critical factors in the project’s success.
At the same time, Roy was constantly attuned to the nonprofit’s limited financial resources. “When it looked like we would not have enough money to complete the first floor, Rick offered to loan us the money,” Kraycir said. “Across the board, Rick was our insurance policy, providing not only such impeccable construction skills, but emotional peace of mind.”
“This is Rick’s way of giving back to the community,” said Messina, whose own house was remodeled by Rick Roy Construction. “His personality is about helping people and supporting his hometown.”
More recently, Roy donated $10,000 to Cape Cod Healthcare to help finance its first-ever bloodmobile, and he is currently president of the Chatham Rotary.
“At the end of the day, Rick contributed hundreds of hours of his time as consultant, designer and builder. His practicality on the one hand and imagination on the other were indispensable. And the reward is his to share with all of us – Chatham residents and the many visitors who now can experience the era of Marconi right on the spot where he altered history,” said Messina.