Renovation & Restoration:
Re-assembling the past stone by stone

September 18, 2001
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When Kip Davis of Kissick Construction Co. took charge of the Spooner Hall restoration project on the University of Kansas campus, he didn't know what he was getting himself into. He and the masonry crew were kept on their toes as they met unexpected dilemmas head-on.

"The first step was a survey of the building," he said. "Because there were no existing prints or dimensions for it, we were not sure what type of construction was used and how this building was put up. It was like playing the game Jenga. Each block you pull out might upset the rest of them."

Robert Fincham, AIA, vice president of the architectural firm Ekdahl, Davis, Depew, Persson/Architects, P.A. (EDDP), assisted Kissick Construction by putting together some of the building's specifications and guidelines. Hired by the University of Kansas on retainer, Fincham oversaw the project. He and EDDP were also involved in other aspects of the restoration, such as wood and window work in addition to outlining the basic blueprints.

Structural concerns

Having a "length, width, and height set of plans" to go by was a start, but it didn't solve all of the problems, according to Davis. "The most difficult thing was making sure it didn't fall, since the portico was leaning and wanting to come down. We had to figure out how we were going to keep it up so it didn't come down faster then we wanted it to, and as we took it down, it did shift several inches," Davis said.

With the potential to bring the whole stone entranceway down around them, the crew had to analyze the structure before beginning the removal process. It soon became evident that techniques common to construction today would not work when it came to restoring Spooner Hall. "When they built this building, they didn't just do curtainwalls or veneers," said Davis. "It was all solid masonry with dry lay [pieces] used for the columns and corners." This would make removal of the old stone difficult.

Disassembly and re-assembly

Each piece had to be carefully removed and labeled so it would be returned to its original place. Numbered pieces of this puzzle lay in order on pallets on the ground while new reinforced structural concrete columns and beams were constructed to tie the portico to the building facade. In order to attach the stone to the columns and beams, it had to be cored through the center. "Some stones were engineered and modified in the field to encapsulate the structural concrete framework," Davis said.

An additional dilemma arose when it came to finding a source for replacement stone. "The original quarry that supplied the stone for the construction of Spooner Hall is no longer in existence," said Davis. "They quarried the stone in western Kansas and Colorado when the railroad went west more than 100 years ago, and the material is no longer available." This posed a problem, as the original stone in the portico entranceway of the hall was significantly weather damaged and worn.

"The red sandstone couldn't be replicated, so as we brought pieces down to pour the concrete beams, we cored them out," Davis said. As a result, the pieces of red sandstone cored from the center of the original stones were kept and reworked to replace others that were damaged beyond repair. Specialty patching material was also used to fix cracks or chips in the columns. It was sculpted to mimic the original stone's hand-chiseled texture and allowed to dry, expertly matching the original color.

It was a difficult task to match the existing mortar's color, texture and composition, but since the university plans to do additional restoration work in the future, it was necessary to create a unified look on the building. "We mixed several mortar samples to achieve the closest look to the original. Then the university analyzed and selected the one they thought was the closest match."

The cored sandstone was used for the corner pieces, arches and columns, and Bayer limestone was purchased from local quarries to replace the damaged areas of the veneer. While it was the two outside columns forming the left and right entranceway that were the most significantly damaged, some of the stone veneer was also weathered beyond repair. The damage was limited to the exterior of the building, although the supports had to be tied in from the interior.

Safety issues

Another difficult task faced during this renovation was implementing a number of safety precautions, not just for the workers but for the students in the vicinity of the building. "The amazing thing is that the building stayed open the whole time we worked on it," Davis said. "We hoisted stone that weighed more than a ton with people walking all around us." The oldest building on campus, 105-year-old Spooner Hall is home to the school's anthropology museum as well as a number of classrooms for the archaeology department, and it had to remain open to allow access to these classrooms.

In order to assure the safety of the students while continuing the building's restoration work, Kissick Construction implemented a number of safety precautions such as reversible signs showing which walkways were open for pedestrian traffic. "We had to supply gates to keep the flow of traffic moving and we built tunnels that could hold a weight of a couple of tons plus, so that the students were enclosed and sheltered from the stone we were hoisting above the entranceway."

In addition, Davis and the masonry crew from Kissick Construction had to deal with flaws in the original construction of Spooner Hall. "They had to do some unusual things in the field to make this project work." Davis said. "We had to stay on our feet and solve problems on site. The building wasn't even square. It was tilted at an angle. We had to put it back up out of plumb so it would match up with what was originally there."

The four-month-long renovation of Spooner Hall was started in the summer of 1999 and was completed that October. Although it provided a challenge, Kissick Construction completed it successfully. "Kissick Construction is often involved in restoration projects, especially with universities and churches," Davis said.

With challenges such as missing blueprints, unavailable materials, flawed original construction and a constant flow of traffic through the work site, Davis stands firm in his belief that restoration work can be more difficult than new construction. Yet, he plans to remain in the restoration business. "These kinds of things are fascinating, Davis said. "You have to have creative flair to make this stuff come out right. You get to be involved in some really unique projects and we like the challenge."

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