Trowel Talk: High Art:
The Renovation and Restoration of the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum
June 11, 2006
The old Patent Office Building located in Washington D.C., has served our country since July 4, 1836. It is the third oldest federal building still in use in our nation's Capitol and as its name suggests, the building was originally the home of the U.S. Patent Office and invention exhibit. Said to be one of the largest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the United States, this historic structure survived two fires and was saved from the wrecking ball by an act of Congress. It was given to the Smithsonian Institute in 1968, serving as the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum.
Closed to the public since 2000 to facilitate an extensive $216 million renovation and restoration, the building will reopen in grand style on Independence Day-exactly 170 years after she first opened her doors. The general contractor for the project was Hensel Phelps Construction Co. and the lath, plaster and painting contractor was Robinson-Prezioso Inc., an international painting contractor specializing in industrial and government projects. The two contractors had also worked together previously on the restoration and repair of the Pentagon after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.
HistoryThe architect for the project is the Washington firm of Hartman-Cox, whose client list include such notable projects as the Corcoran Gallery of Art addition, the Chrysler Museum addition and renovation, the National Archives renovation, and the National Museum of American History addition.
During its long history of public service, the Old Patent Building also served as an army hospital during the Civil War and played host to President Lincoln's second inaugural ball. During the restoration process, many artifacts and remnants of the building's history were discovered, including the initials of a Union soldier found carved into the wooden window casing. The assumption is that the soldier left his mark while bedded down in the large ballroom serving as a makeshift hospital ward.
Robinson-Prezioso took a good, hard look at the condition of the plastered groin ceilings and ornamental detail-the company was taken back. Much of the plaster ceilings had suffered water damage and needed to be removed down to the brick substrate. Enriched plaster capitols and staff work were damaged and in need of repair, and in some cases, completely replaced.
At its peak, the plastering crew consisted of 60 journeymen and apprentice plasterers. To meet the demand for the highly skilled labor, RPI partnered with Local 891 of the Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons International Association. The local union business manager Keith Hickman and the business agent Stephen Stovall were invaluable to the company by identifying and selecting a team of local plasterers with the talent needed for this renovation and historical restoration project.
The foreman selected for the plastering crew was Steve Fargiano, who had learned his craft working more than 20 years on similar projects in New York City and had recently relocated to the D.C. area when the local union officers approached him about the opportunity to run the work on the old Patent Office Building project. His first reaction to the project was, "This is going to be fun."
Interior workAs typical with buildings of significant historical consequence, the owners, the Smithsonian Institute, desired to retain as much of the original fabric of the building as possible. Unfortunately, water damage from two previous fires, years of being subjected to the notorious D.C. humidity, traffic vibration and age, accumulated to cause much of the plaster to be removed from its brick and mortar base.
"After experimenting with a variety of techniques, abrasive blasting was found to be the most effective and the least damaging to the rest of the structure," says RPI Project Superintendent John Parker. "Special care was taken to retain as much of the ornamentation as possible but even many of these valuable pieces needed to be replaced."
To meet the demand for the recreation of cast and run plaster ornaments, a staff shop was at first set up off site. But as the amount and variety of bench work increased, eventually a shop was moved onto the project and the majority of the work was cast or run on site.
The interior plasterwork consists of a rich and diverse collection of styles. Many of the large rooms contained groin ceilings with decorative ribs along their splays with ornate medallions at their apex. Groin ceilings are created when two semi-circular ceilings intersect, forming a beautiful display of vaulted geometric lines and curves. The splays on this project, or the point where the ceilings intersect and form an exterior angle, are decorated by a 3/4-round rib mold.
In addition to the replacement or repair of plaster and both run and cast ornaments, the project required the patching of Scagolia, an ancient technique of creating imitation marble from colored plasters. Grand-fluted Scagolia columns running two stories tall were in need of repair.
When visiting Washington, there is a lot to see and do, and the Smithsonian Museums are on the top of that list. But if you want to see some of the world's finest art, hanging among the work of true plaster artisans, be sure to visit the old Patent Office Building, home of the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum. The building is located at, 801 F Street NW, right across the street from the D.C. Convention Center.
Be a resource centerArchitect:
Hensel Phelps Construction Co.
Project Superintendent, Richard Cohen
Santa Fe Springs, Calif.
Project Manager, John Parker
Plastering Foreman, Steve Forgiano
OPCMIA Local 891
Business Manager, Keith Hickman
Business Agent, Stephen Stovall