Hotel opens on a fast track

March 21, 2002
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The Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel stands at the foot of the Roberto Clemente Bridge facing the Allegheny River in downtown Pittsburgh. It is located across the river from the new ballpark where the Pittsburgh Pirates play.


The interior stonework at the hotel, which is comprised of marble from Vermont, Alabama and Italy, required extensive restoration.
Located just across the river from the new ballpark that is home to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel stands at the foot of the Roberto Clemente Bridge in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh?s revitalized cultural district, facing the Allegheny River.

The building?s location was the prime factor in instituting a fast-track schedule for the restoration, as the owners wanted the building complete and open to the public prior to opening day of the 2001 baseball season. But before the hotel could open its doors, its interior and exterior stonework had to undergo an extensive restoration effort.

Built in 1906 during the heyday of the steel industry, the historic Fulton Building was constructed by Henry Phipps, a partner of industrialist Andrew Carnegie, and was named after engineer Robert Fulton, who built the steamboat New Orleans in Pittsburgh in 1811. The building was originally designed as a hotel by architect Grosvenor Atterbury, but was occupied as office space instead, explained Jim Johnson, AIA, principal of JG Johnson Architects in Denver, the architectural firm for the restoration. Now after almost a century, the Fulton Building has been restored to take on its originally intended role, and it was reopened as the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel. "Our intention was to protect and enhance the stone materials used in this building, especially the granite and marble," said Johnson.

But despite the broad scope of the work that needed to be done on the project, the work had to progress quickly. Only a few months after Sage Hospitality, the developer, purchased the property, the City of Pittsburgh announced that it was going to build two new stadiums for its professional baseball and football teams, with the baseball stadium opening in April of 2001. When Marriott Corp. bought the property from Sage Hospitality, they set opening day of the 2001 baseball season as the deadline for completing the restoration and renovation. This gave the stone contractors less than a year to carry out the work, an objective that was successfully achieved.

The project included extensive restoration of the mosaic ceiling in the building?s main rotunda.

Interior restoration

Extensive restoration of the existing interior stone --which included marble walls and floors as well as a mosaic ceiling --was one of the first priorities in revitalizing the building. In addition to functioning as an office building, the structure had also been utilized as the Fulton Theatre, and it also served two stints as a nightclub. "People went into the grand lobby [during the nightclub renovation], and they used power actuated charges to attach their wooden partitions to the marble," said Terry O?Neill of Columbia Marble, which completed the interior restoration work. "They also had a stage, and electricians punched holes in this gorgeous mosaic ceiling so they could have light stanchions."

In addition to damage from previous renovations, the design of the original building contributed to the interior decay over time. "The architect wanted to ventilate the lobby space, so they had a 30-foot-diameter dome with pneumatically operated windows, which created a draw, like a damper on a chimney," O?Neill said. "It cooled the lobby in the 1920s, but later on, when they started to shut the place down, it drew in whatever pollutants were in the atmosphere."

Additionally, the rain conductors around the dome windows had shattered as the building fell into disrepair, and water poured into the lobby and down the marble walls. "We have a big problem with acid rain here in Pennsylvania, and when the rain came in, it etched the walls and really stained them."

The first step in the process was to assess the damage and determine an appropriate restoration plan. "When we first got there, they asked what we could do," O?Neill said. "We had a tremendous amount of cleaning. There was Alabama marble and Vermont marble as well as some Italian marble. The etching from the acid rain required re-honing of the marble panels, and we also did a tremendous amount of poulticing to repair the damage from grime that had been sucked into the building." SureKleen marble cleaner from ProSoCo was used to clean the marble throughout the interior.

In addition to cleaning and re-honing the marble, the workers had to repair the areas that had been poorly renovated in the past. "We had to fix what the people did with the partitions, and we had to stabilize a lot of things," he said. "Wherever the partitions were located, the wires that supported the headers had been cut, so that had to all be re-done."

Some of the most extensive reconstruction was necessary for the ceilings. "The mosaic celings are all old stones, such as Botticino, Hauteville and Dolcetto Perlato," O?Neill said. "We had a hand press to make new mosaic pieces, and we split 5,000 pieces of mosaic to re-do these ceilings. Like Michelangelo, my setters laid on their backs for a couple of weeks to fill what the electricians had destroyed years ago."

In addition to the walls and ceilings, the stone floor in the lobby had been eroded by decades of foot traffic. "The whole floor was re-honed, and some of it was replaced," O?Neill said. "Most of the flooring was 1 1⁄4 inch thick, but in some places, the flooring was down to 1⁄8 inch thick. This stone was replaced with some marble from Alabama that had been in our yard for some time. We don?t like to throw old stones away."

One of the more interesting aspects of the project was the restoration of the building?s signature medallion. The medallion, which is comprised of marble and brass, features an image of the steamboat New Orleans, surrounded by the words "Robert Fulton Building." It was originally located at the bottom of the grand staircase as part of the original marble floor.

"When they opened the ?Heaven? nightclub, they decided that a medallion with ?Robert Fulton Building? wasn?t appropriate, so they pulled it out of the ground with picks and shovels," O?Neill said. "For some reason, though, they didn?t throw it out. They took it up to 13th floor, and it sat in an old cupboard. My son Todd was in his senior year of college at the time, so I gave him the commission to re-do the medallion. It was in many pieces. Not only did he have to epoxy all of the pieces together and re-polish the marble, but he also to restore the brass. Then we had a 60-inch diameter metal plate made, and the medallion was epoxied to it, and then it was hung on the wall with a pin. The hotel owners had put plate glass mirrors on the wall, and then they told us they wanted us to hang this 800-pound medallion on it. We took a forklift and hung it like a picture on a wall."

Although the stone restoration was extensive, O?Neill explained that it was not done to make the building look new. "The owner was good about it," he said. "With a job like this, a lot of people want it to look like the day it was first opened, but he understood that this wasn?t going to happen. They wanted the lobby to be clean and functional, but also to be like an antique or a relic. The space was originally polished [in 1906], but we only brought it to a hone."

In addition to restoring the existing stone, the interior work called for new stone in several areas of the hotel. At the new registration area, approximately 1,000 square feet of honed Murgiano marble flooring, highlighted with inlaid mosaic patterns, was supplied by Walker Zanger. Additionally, Columbia fabricated new counters in Absolute Black granite for the registration desk, concierge and wine bar and counters in Ubatuba granite for the public restrooms and the mini-bars in 30 guest suites.

Going beyond the stonework, the 30-foot-diameter dome was re-opened. "We took off the protective coatings to bring more natural light into the lobby to highlight the marble," Johnson said. "The 30-foot-diameter dome was closed over during World War II in the midst of a blackout in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh was the number two target for German bombings after Washington DC, because of the prominence of the steel industry there. The steel industry was targeted because it could be used to produce weapons and other military necessities during wartime."

The stone flooring in the lobby had been eroded by decades of foot traffic. All of the marble was re-honed, and some of the severely damaged pieces were replaced.

Exterior restoration

The exterior restoration focused on the Stony Creek granite at the bottom two stories as well as the brick cladding of the upper floors. The U-shaped building --with a courtyard in the middle --is reminiscent of the Renaissance Revival architectural style. "There was a companion building across the street, which was built in the 1890s by the same developer, but it did not have a courtyard," said Johnson. "The courtyard was added to this building?s design for ventilation and to allow natural light to penetrate into the building. It was a significant historic evolution of this type of building at the time."

According to Don McDevitt, vice president of Graciano Corp., which completed the exterior restoration, the building needed all new thresholds, sills and surrounds for the storefronts. "Some replacement stone was found in the basement of the building," he said, adding that the salvaged stone was re-faced and reinstalled at the northwest corner of the building, which serves as the focal point. In addition to taking some stone from the sidewalks that were dug up, new blocks of stone were purchased from Granicor, which owns the Stony Creek quarry in Connecticut. These blocks were fabricated by Columbia Marble, and installed by Graciano Corp.

Once the broken and damaged stone was replaced, a thorough cleaning of the exterior was completed. "We used a mild, low-pressure rinse [SureKleen restoration cleaner from ProSoCo] which was hand-applied and left for a maximum of 10 minutes," said McDevitt. "Our intentions were not to clean the stone to its original condition. We just wanted to remove the stains from atmospheric pollution. To return the stone to its new state, we would have risked burning it with the chemical cleaners. The exterior was cleaned to 90% of its original state, and the little blemishes were to remain."

There was also some spot cleaning done to the mortar between the stones. "We hand-tested and visually inspected all of the joints and prepared the cavity for new joints by backpacking them with mortar," said McDevitt.

Patching techniques were avoided where possible. "We used more Dutchman type repairs," said McDevitt. "Since the mezzanine area is a focal point, it was a wiser decision to go with a Dutchman than a patch. Granite is a hard stone, and we couldn?t hide a patch as well as an actual piece of new stone."

There was also an effort made to restore the copper cladding on the uppermost levels of the building. According to the architects, the copper restoration, which utilized 40,000 pounds of baking soda, was the largest of its kind on the East Coast since the restoration of the Statue of Liberty.

The 14-story Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel has 286 rooms and 14 suites to serve the growing population of travelers expected to visit Pittsburgh?s reinvigorated downtown area. The building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, joins neighboring Byham Theater as the only two of Phipps? five buildings that remain standing today. "The building was certainly in disrepair, but we could see what a gem it was underneath," said Johnson. "It is so important to our cities that we undertake these projects. Buildings like this aren?t built anymore."

The building?s signature medallion had been discarded in previous restorations and was severely damaged. As part of the restoration effort, Columbia Marble completely rebuilt the medallion and brought it to its former glory.

Credit Box:

Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel

Pittsburgh, PA

Owner: Marriott International, Inc.

Developer: Sage Hospitality Resources, Denver, CO

Architect: JG Johnson Architects, Denver, CO

General Contractor: Hensel Phelps Construction Co., Greely, CO

Stone Contractors: Graciano Corp., Pittsburgh, PA (exterior); Columbia Marble, Pittsburgh, PA (interior)

Stone Suppliers: Walker Zanger, Mt. Vernon, NY (registration area marble flooring and mosaics); Granicor, St. Augustin, Quebec, Canada (exterior Stony Creek granite)

Stone Cleaning Products: ProSoCo, Lawrence, KS

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