A ceiling and history are preserved in a Florida courthouse.

The historic courthouse of Orlando, Fla., was out of order. Time and progress had judged the building in serious need of restoration, and if it was to be converted and rehabilitated into a history museum, areas of the historically significant courthouse had to be preserved.

This meant using new material to recreate old material and then blending it into the existing areas seamlessly.

“Visually and through composition, the new material had to match the old,” says Sara Van Arsdel, director of the museum the court has become. “We wanted a company that had good knowledge of the techniques of the time the courthouse was constructed and one that understood historic plastering techniques, including horsehair-based plaster.”

This plaster is the material of the elaboratly stuccoed ceiling in “courtroom B.”

Getting back

The job of restoring the ceiling was awarded to KHS&S Contractors, Orlando Division. The company was chosen by the construction management team, Turner/PSA, because of its expertise of the historic plastering methods required.

“For historical reasons, certain areas had to remain intact and the ceiling had to stay,” says Neal Harris, project manager. “We went through many meetings with the historical society, Orange County and the general contractor to make sure we were qualified and keeping the intent of the project.”

Constructed in 1927, Orange County’s fourth courthouse was designed by Orlando’s first registered architect, Murray S. King, who was also responsible for the city’s first high-rise buildings. The restoration was designed to serve a two-fold purpose: to preserve his work and to rehabilitate the courthouse.

A task force, appointed by the Orange County Board of County Commissioners and consisting of citizens, was created to determine the building’s best use. Since the city had grown and the court would require a complete technical overhaul to accommodate metal-detecting equipment, it was decided by the Board that it would be more cost effective to build a new courthouse and convert the existing building into a museum and regional history center.

“We gave the restoration 24 months,” Van Arsdel explains. “Most of the interior of the building had to be demolished, except for Coutroom B, a grand staircase and a grand jury room.”

In September 1998, the work began. Unfortunately, in July 1999, another obstacle presented itself before the ceiling work could progress. A welder was cutting old conduit in the walls of a courtroom exterior, when the conduit overheated and the heat caused the plastic protecting a mural to catch on fire, along with the mural itself.

The mural was completely destroyed and severe smoke damage covered the room and ceiling. However, because it was still in the interior demolition phase it did not upset the timetable.

“Because of the fire, the ceiling in courtroom B was damaged so badly we had to reinstall the first bay and most of the second bay,” says Howard Cromwell, plastering supervisor for the Orlando Division of KHS&S. “There are four bays in the ceiling. The room is 48 feet by 40 feet with a soffit between each bay and detailed cornice molding.”

The first bay required demolition and replastering. The ornamentation work had to be done by hand. Fortunately, Cromwell and his family had plenty of experience doing detailed plaster ornamentation work.

“No doubt it was going to be challenging to match the existing ornamentation,” Cromwell adds. “But there’s not a job we can’t handle!”

Filling the blanks

The detailed soffits ran through each bay and around the perimeter of the ceiling with all the decorative details. In some places, chunks of 2 or 3 feet of missing plaster had to be filled in to exactly match the original work.

“There were already existing portions of the ceiling for us to work from, so we would make a jig/template to reconstruct the missing piece,” Cromwell explains. “We had to do it by hand to match the patch exactly.”

To make the jig/template, the existing soffit cornice work was cut with a diamond blade saw. Next, the contractor would slide in a piece of plastic or cardboard and trace the outline of the existing moldings. The outline is transferred from the piece of plastic to a 16-gauge piece of sheet metal.

“We would then cut an outline with a jig saw and file it down to exactly match the existing cornice molding,” Harris adds. “We then take a piece of plywood and cut out the same trace line except a little bit smaller. Then you attach the plywood to the sheet metal. Attach another piece of plywood on a 45-degree angle and put a handle on the back. You have to put a track on the top of the ceiling and the bottom of the soffit to make sure your jig runs straight and true.”

The plaster itself used for the retrofit was not too much different from the existing plaster. However, instead of using the “hair fiber” plaster in courtroom B, the company used Structo-Lite, manufactured by USG, for the basecoat and USG’s Red Top Gauging Plaster and Snowdrift Lime for the finish coat.

The walls in courtroom B were patched with the Structo-Lite and stucco sand to match the wall texture.

The project took about two months of actual work time and the work was meticulous throughout the process.

“We had to build a dance floor scaffold for the whole area,” Harris says. “We would work in one area then move onto another so the previous area could dry.”

The courthouse is set to reopen Sept. 29 with a new name: The Orange County Regional History Center.

“Our plasterers did an excellent job,” says Harris. “There is a painter coming in to redo the stencil work damaged by the fire and they had another original mural in storage brought back. They even brought in old benches to make courtroom B look like it’s still 1927.”

Van Arsdel is equally excited.

“Everybody is thrilled it’s so beautiful,” she says. “We worked very hard to make sure each room demonstrates historical significance and we made sure that they are of their respective periods and feature details of their periods. When the building is finished, it will be placed on the national register.”