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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

In Other Words: Master Woodworker Lovingly Crafts New Windows for Mess Hall

Tom Hardy and Greg Mounce. FTM file. 

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The Mess Hall in Tower Park is one of our most iconic buildings. It’s the site of countless past military meals and activities. Now it is the central hub for celebrations and meetings. Unfortunately, the building  went through a period of decline but is now experiencing an amazing transformation. 

Greg Mounce, the Property Management Director for the city, lists repairs made to the Mess Hall over the last few years like “new roof, tuck pointing, ceiling, lighting, repair the box gutters.” The next step is to replace the windows. 

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And to that end there is an ambitious and beautiful makeover happening in a workshop in the Armory building. Tom Hardy is hand crafting windows to replace every window in the building. Each piece is meticulously made. And they are things of beauty. 

I have to say that I wish all of you could see how each one is cut from raw wood, formed, shaped, and assembled into a handsome housing for glass. The workshop is a vibrant area of creativity all under the control of Tom Hardy, the master craftsman tasked with creating windows. Honestly, windows sounds so plain but these are functional works of art deserving of such an historic building. 

Chanda Calentine, the city’s Economic Developer, introduced me to Tom who is tall, has a full head of gray hair, smiles easily, and is a gracious host. He’s dressed for the workshop. Sawdust rests in the hair on his arms. He welcomes me into the shop and invites me to sit. We do. 

He tells me that he has known Greg Mounce since 1991 when “We were in the Army together. In the reserve up here [in Fort Thomas].” He jumps ahead in time to say, ”They had some bad windows over there so we made replacements from poplar and we painted them but after looking at all of the bad ones…. “ He trails off because he knew that those windows would never do. They replaced a few window sills with mahogany and that sparked the next step. 

Long story short, they bought a load of sapele from west Africa. It’s know as the mahogany of Africa and it’s a gorgeous material. It has the look and feel of mahogany but is more cost effective and resists rot. When Tom applies a coat of clear finish, the true nature of the wood appears and it glows in the sunlight. Honestly, I admire the joinery, the smooth finish, the rich color, and how the sun plays off the finish. And they have a bit of heft to them. Each window weighs about twenty pounds without glass. These are beautiful windows. 

Tom tells me that, “Ever since I was a little kid I was fascinated” by woodworking. “My dad had a little shop. He used to work at Baldwin piano,” he says. The home shop had some tools and young Tom began to experiment and build. He attended vocational school but like so many masters he learned more with every piece he made. “I’d learn from different people. Mostly self-taught.” 

He chuckles when he admits that, “I didn’t know nothing about building windows” which I find hard to believe so I am not sure what to believe. He says, “I built cabinets, bars, chests, hutches, different piece of furniture.” But it’s a matter of being exact, which he very much is. 

 Tom grew up in Bellevue but now lives on a farm in Harrison County, Kentucky. He works at the Veterans Administration in Cincinnati and builds the windows during his off hours. He is currently inching his way toward retirement, he says. He had a few health scares that landed him in the hospital and set him back a bit but he’s improved and is charging ahead. 

One of the old windows

I asked when he expects to finish. He and Greg both laugh in that knowing laugh that long-time friends have. Tom jokes, “Twelve years.” An obvious exaggeration. Mounce says, “I try to get him to go faster.” But, honestly, quality takes time. 

He says that this project is a labor of love. “Oh, I love it,” he says. And he has a strong respect for older things like tools and buildings. Tom says, “I think this area is unique. It’s a fort that still has some of the [original] buildings. I’m glad they are preserving it.” 

Tom has invested a lot of his time and money into this project. He has travelled as far as Alabama to buy a particular machine for this project. He tells me the stories of each machine, shows me the stacks of raw materials, stacks of cut pieces of frames, invites me to run my fingers over sanded portions, and then we have a discussion about tenons and new glues that were not available to the original builders. It’s a bit of a geek session, I admit, but tools reveal so much about the workman. And Tom’s tools reveal that he demands precision and excellence. 

Tom is a life-long learner. He plans to learn the art of stained glass for the next phase - making arched windows to replaced the boarded up arches that currently stand over every window. Old photos of the building show arched windows containing circles of stained glass. Tom says, “Well, I’m gonna learn stained glass. How hard can it be?” He laughs. He lays out his plans, how he will cut each section of circles to fit inside the arch and how each piece of stained glass will fit. I have no doubt that he will master that as well. 

I have to say that I am eager to make an excuse to visit his shop again to learn a bit more and to check on the progress of the windows. Tom says, “I just love that old building, you know.” And, you know, Tom just may love that building a little bit more than the rest of us. He told me that “I got to give God all the credit. God give me all the talent in the world.” And I believe him. I’m glad he is sharing that talent with us.  

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The French poet, Jean de La Fontaine, wrote that “By the work one knows the workman.” Yes, these windows will be a lovely and architecturally pleasing addition to the Mess Hall. But they will also be an expression of love and honor from one craftsman to the craftsmen of the past. 

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