Giving the Past a Future: Historical Preservation at Kulla Isuf Mazrekaj – Drenoc, Kosovo

Like anything that’s been around for several centuries, the Isuf Mazrekaj kulla is finding that it needs to adapt in order to survive. These stone towers, potent symbols of traditional Islamic Kosovar culture, were particularly targeted during the recent war, and now only a couple dozen survive. The Mazrekaj family has survived warfare, regime changes, and economic instability, and so has their kulla, but now that Kosovo has found independence and relative stability, helping the kulla participate in modern tourism is the surest way to ensure the survival of the historic structure, and the prosperity of the family who have held it for three centuries. Adventures in Preservation, an American company partnering with Cultural Heritage Without Borders Kosovo, brought seven volunteers to spend two weeks working on the kulla alongside the Mazrekaj family, guided by conservation architects and local craftsmen. The result? A historically-minded rehabilitation of the 18th century building.

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Our master craftsmen, Smiley and Hasan. Smiley (behind) was our plastering guru, a quick frenetic presence, while Hasan, about a foot and a half taller, was the gentle giant who led us in woodworking.

1. Reconfiguring doorways

  • One of the first orders of business has been to increase the privacy of the three bedrooms by giving each its own doorway onto the entrance hall (and thus access to the bathroom). On the first couple days this meant knocking open one door  while bricking-up another.
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Our master craftsmen, Smiley and Hasan. Smiley (behind) was our plastering guru, a quick frenetic presence, while Hasan, about a foot and a half taller, was the gentle giant who led us in woodworking.

The Bunny tries out her bricklaying skills…! As far as possible, we reused the bricks from the doorway we had just knocked out.

2. Building a partition wall

  • Meanwhile, one of the bedrooms had a doorway opening directly onto the outside, so we built an entirely new wall closing off the bedroom and creating a hallway leading from that external doorway straight to the entrance hall. We built the wall of interlocking pine panels, filled with insulation and covered on the opposite side in lathe, chicken wire, and plaster.

The external side of the new wall, with lovely pine planking and a custom-made door.

And on the other side, plastering over the lathe and chicken wire.

3. Reflooring the kitchen

  • This small room with its charmingly crooked fireplace would historically have been the kitchen. A rotting framework of later flooring covered the original floorboards, still impressively intact, while in between was a packed layer of soil which aided insulation, but made for a pretty dirty uncovering process. As awesome as these old boards are, for purposes of structural integrity and to avoid a major trip hazard, they needed to be replaced. So we stripped back the original boards to the joists, laying then aside with an idea of repurposing the most, perhaps as furniture, which would preserve them while also being of continued use to the kulla. We laid some basic planking perpendicular to the joists, then built a framework over them, slotting it here and there with bits of wood to make it (mostly) level. Then, just as historically it was filled with soil, we filled the framework with sand for insulation. Over this, in an epic four-hour flooring sesh that lasted well past quitting time and was fueled by hilarity and a few beers, three of us nailed in the new tongue-and-groove pine flooring.

The original floorboards in situ, preserved under a layer of dirt.

It took quite a few trips of the bucket brigade to bring all that sand up to the second floor from the courtyard…!

Repping my college acapella group while Julia, Meris, and I power through the flooring, while Master Hassan supervises and we all, erm, “hydrate” 😅

4. Plastering the kitchen

  • Although the kitchen and second bedroom had all historically comprised one open room, at some point in the kulla’s history partition walls had been built dividing the space into two smaller rooms. Rather than tear down this wall, it was decided to keep it, but plaster over it to give the room a tidier appearance. Plastering was a story in layers: First went a splattered coat of very rough-grain mortar to give the wall better texture to which subsequent layers could adhere. Then we nailed segments of chicken wire over the bricks – and let me assure you that driving nails into crumbling old brick mortar was the most fun – to give the next coat something to adhere to. The next bit was the messiest, and therefore the funnest: in order to get the mortar to pass through the chicken wire we had to fling it at the wall, then smooth it over once we had built up a sufficient thickness. After leaving it to dry a few days, we applied a second, much smoother coat for the final layer. We sifted the sand through a screen to give the lime plaster a much finer grain and the wall surface a smoother finish. The last step, which had to be completed after we left, was painting with repeated costs of lime wash to achieve a bright, white-wash effect over the grey plaster.

Splatter stage: Master Smiley had this incredible skill for distributing the plaster evenly over the whole surface with just a flick of his wrist. Our attempts ended up mostly on the floor…

Twisting nails into the spiky wire and then tapping them into a crumbling surface – that’s my “fun face.”

More splattering was required after the chicken wire – I think we were starting to get better at it!

5. A new ceiling for the kitchen

  • The ceiling boards in the kitchen, though original and very cool looking, were not in a condition to serve the purposes of a modern guesthouse. In an ideal world, a professional wood conservator would be able to document and analyze the beams for information about their age and manufacture, and then could stabilise and consolidate them – perhaps arresting the processes of age and rot and insect damage. Unfortunately neither AiP, CHwB, nor the Mazrekajs have the funds for such a step at this stage. Until proper conservation can be done, the best solution was to install a new ceiling over the old one, this shielding the historic fabric and and also making the room more usable and appealing.

Shiny new ceiling leaving the support beams exposed. Each plank had to be custom fitted to the uneven contour of the beams.


6. Retouching the kitchen

  • As evident from the photos above, the old kitchen required the most work to rehabilitate. This included details like plastering gaps between the walls and the floor, plastering the fireplace to protect the original stones, and covering over holes in the walls, such as the one added over the mantle to vent a stovepipe sometime in the room’s later history. The mantle of the fireplace had seen some damage as well, so we applied a new layer of plaster to approximate its historic contours and give it a nicer appearance for use by the Mazrekaj family.

That detail work though…

The final product (still needing white-washing)

The Mazrekaj’s kulla presented some interesting conservation dilemmas. The aim of the project was to further its conversion to a functioning B&B so that it can remain an asset to and help maintain the livelihood of the family who built it three centuries ago and have called it home ever since. Although it would undoubtedly be awesome to see a kulla in its original state, the goal was never to restore the space to its original 18th century appearance.  It will never be a museum; it was necessary to balance concerns of historicity against the need for the space to function. Best practice does not permit the removal of features added later in the building’s history – for example, all the brick partition walls. So we did the best we could to preserve historic material while making the space habitable, the guiding principles being reversibility – almost nothing we did could not be undone at a later date if desired – and aesthetic integrity – all new additions (new wall, new ceiling, new floor) were executed in traditional materials using human muscle and elbow grease.

It would be fair to say that occasionally the details and the rationale behind some decisions suffered in translation from Albanian to English – sometimes our architect-translators weren’t on hand, so between Master Hasan’s school Italian, Master Smiley’s smattering of German, and our ability to mime various hammering and sawing actions, we got quite good at understanding one another on site. But this really only made things more fun, and enhanced our relationships with our two “Masters.” Its amazing how much you can pick up about someone’s personality, when you don’t have to worry about listening to their words.

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One thought on “Giving the Past a Future: Historical Preservation at Kulla Isuf Mazrekaj – Drenoc, Kosovo

  1. Reblogged this on Preservation Journey and commented:
    Here’s a very thorough description of how Adventures in Preservation’s latest adventure went!

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