The renovation of the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston's Hermann Park not only sought to increase interest in the community, but also to give the theatre recognition on a national level. This mission was carried out with thoughtful use of stonework, including limestone installed on a radius for the exterior facade.

The original theatre was designed by William Ward Watkin in 1921. Financed by a bond issue in the mid-'60s, a new theatre was designed by Eugene Werlin and Associates, and it opened in 1968. On a practical level, the recent renovation provided additional restroom capacity along with utility, storage and ticketing space. But from an aesthetic point of view, the renovation sought to enhance the theatre's status as a major entertainment venue in Houston. The theatre is the only one of its kind in the U.S. that offers free entertainment to the general public.

The architect for the project was Ray Bailey Architects, Inc. of Houston, and the design utilizes Minnesota Glacier Buff limestone and African Red granite as predominant elements for the exterior. A total of approximately 5,400 square feet of limestone was specified in split-faced and honed finishes, and the stone was installed on a radius throughout the project. Meanwhile, almost 900 feet of African Red granite was utilized as 4- x 8-inch pieces in a brick-like pattern. "The museum quality of the stonework is the visual highlight of the facade," said Greg Billman, AIA, senior associate for Ray Bailey Architects. "The work entailed some difficult detailing, which at times required flexibility in the field."

Installing the stone

The stone and masonry contractor for the project was Lucia Constructors, Inc. of Houston, TX, which was was responsible for shop drawings, engineering, anchorage design, supply and erection of all of the stonework on the project. "The biggest difficulty was the fact that the entire wall was laid on a radius in a running bond pattern," explained Ron LaRicci, senior estimator for Lucia. "We were concerned with giving it a faceted appearance, but it came out really well. The piece sizes were small enough that we were able to pull it off."

The limestone pieces, which were 3 inches thick, were attached to the backup wall with wires, and the joints were tuck-pointed with mortar. The installation of the stone had to be carefully coordinated with the installation of a steel canopy that runs along the top of the facade. "The connection for the canopy had to penetrate the stone, and accommodating the pieces so it would fit was difficult," LaRicci said, adding that it was resolved during the shop drawing process.

The African Red granite was cut into 4- x 8-inch pieces that were "thick thinset" onto a reinforced plaster substrate, according to LaRicci. "Essentially, it was a heavy mortar bed that was 1?inch thick. The granite was set similar to [the method for installing] tiles," he said, adding that the 2-cm thickness of the granite pieces made it possible. "I would have been hesitant with 3 cm because of the weight, but with 2-cm tiles, it's held up quite well. We had not done thinset for a vertical exterior application before. The architect had drawn it, and we felt confident that we could make it work, so that's why we proceeded." All of the joints were grouted with a red mortar, providing contrast to the predominantly black background of the African Red granite.

In addition to the stonework on the facade, Lucia supplied and installed 6-inch Glacier Buff limestone stair treads, 7-inch-deep Buckingham Virginia slate window sills and over 21,000 concrete masonry units. "The masonry portion was a very difficult aspect of the project," LaRicci said. "In making connections to the existing building, we found a number of instances where we had to make adjustments."

Lucia had between 12 and 16 people on the job at any one time, including support crews, and the stonework took approximately three months to install. Since its completion, the project has received a number of awards, including First Place in the "Excellence in Stone" category of the Associated Masonry Contractors of Houston 2000 Golden Trowel Awards. Also, the Texas Masonry Council presented Lucia with First Place of its 2000 TMC Golden Trowel Award for Outstanding Stone Craftsmanship.