This lecture was recorded during a symposium held May 13, 2006 at the Victoria Mansion in Portland Maine.
Material, Intent, and the Aesthetics of Conservation
David Fixler, AIA, Principal, Einhorn Yaffee Prescott
I think why we did this project but why it matters to the world at large, to the architectural community, to really a sort of perpetuation of our culture. To think about these buildings in a larger sense, I’m going to talk about three things. First I’m going to talk a little bit about stone- just about the way we think about stone. And I’m going to talk about Henry Austin and about Austin’s background as a kind of romantic architect. And then a little bit more about the work that we actually did on the project but I am not a conservator or a scientist. You’re going to be hearing lots from Matt I’m going to try to keep this general and sort of lightly philosophical in the hope to sort of provide a framework upon which the other talks can build.
Here we go, okay. I’m going to start by quoting something from a talk that I gave a couple years ago at a symposium that we did that I was very much a part of and an organizer of also, although some of you may have been there. But in that talk, I started out by saying that this was really about looking at stone and thinking about the ways in which we look at stone. And it starts out with a quotation from Nietzsche who and what I said is that Paris began a symposium on Alvar Aalto in 1997 with a meditation on stone and a meditation on Friedrich Nietzsche’s, Human All Too Human. Which is the piece from that is entitled, “Stone is more stone than it used to be.”
And this meditation begins with an excursus on Nietzsche’s own perception that already by this time, this was 1878, traditional architectural form had long since lost the power to embody and transmit the symbolism and spiritual meaning with which stone had been invested since antiquity. This was a power that was transformed but no less diminished by Christianity in the Middle Ages, we asserted it’s classical roots in the Renaissance. Here’s another example of the wonderful figuring powers of stone. But then began the inextricable diminution of its mystical aura as the result of the growth of the science and philosophy that would eventually, definitively, lead to the transference of meaning from form and material’s spirit. And the consequential reduction of spiritual meaning as a function of architectural expression.
Therefore, stone has to thank itself as our own term became foregrounded and the attention became focused upon the tactile, visual and scientifically experiential qualities of material and how these qualities are brought out, expressed and consequently given meaning through the will of the hand of the artist. And I think Victoria Mansion is a very good example of that.
We might argue one task of ours to represent the materials to enable them to recall the ways in which material remains charged and latent in meaning in modern pop culture. A notion that reinforces the view that extends from Plato to Le Corbusier that material is mute until intervened upon by the form giving spirit of the artist.
Contemporary design culture has been pushing the use of stone to previously unperceived levels in the last several decades, an example the church the Vatican opened in the 1960s in Switzerland with transparent stone panels (Pius Church). But in ways that more frankly hallucinate the deep and variegated properties of the material. Both as a result of and an opposition to the postmodern critique of the modern movement and interest in the central possibilities of the material whether tactile, visual, olfactory, etcetera as the thing itself that began as the core of architectural fashion. This is actually a jewelry store from the 1970s in Vienna by Aalto.
Whether or not we believe that these kinds of cultural shifts should have an impact on the way that we approach historic preservation, the reality is that it will happen. Preservation has existed as of course a byproduct of the great force in modernism that is overwhelmed by civilization in the last 200 or so years. But preservation as it became atrined as an academic and professional discipline, became a science that treats buildings as artifacts belonging to history. Which means that any alterations made to the fabric are deemed to detract from the authentic story and meaning of the eye.
As a society, we are now engaging, struggling with the notion that modernism itself has become distorted and we are looking at these issues of engaging history with fresh eyes. And this has a corollary effect on how we ascribe value to historic structures.
Victoria Mansion is in my mind a quintessential example of the celebration, if not, sensationalize of stone as the thing itself. As Robert mentioned it’s a tour de force exercise in the expressive properties and triassic sandstone which is of course lovely, easily warped but hopelessly impermanent material. The Victorian Mansion exemplifies the sensuous and expressive power of this material that is otherwise, that give us such fix. And perhaps for exactly those reasons that they give us such fix is because it is so expressive as something we can use. Now in order to assign meaning to the stones of Victoria Mansion, should that meaning then be based upon salvaging the greatest possible quantity of the surviving original material, or should it be upon seeking to maintain the appearance that was originally intended for the building?
Now, Robert touched a little bit on our conservation philosophy and I’m just going to go into that a little bit more and I’m going to bring in some quotes from the piece that he and I wrote together for the Getty Grant. The more recent Getty Grant that was used as part of the conservation work on the tower. Before we began our conservation philosophy for the exterior Victoria Mansion, we sought to construct a optimal balance between our askinnian strategy that preserves the greatest amount of historical fabric through stabilization and carefully plan invisible interventions and one that more closely follows the course of restoration designed to maximize the integrity and longevity of the building, and to recapture the original aesthetic effect of the architecture.
We has a few salient points, the ongoing deterioration of the stone as a life safety concern as Robert mentioned. The deterioration of the stone and all the related masonry cutter classic etcetera, is putting the interior in jeopardy and therefore this made this a project which became critical. The tower requires stiffening. Robert mentioned Michael Henry pointed out that this was a critical area towards getting to save America’s Treasures Grant, though I am happy to report that under the guidance of our structural engineer Marie Hettes, we found a way to replace that without having to go quite to the lengths that Michael Henry thought we would have to go to. So this was fortuitous for the future of the project.
And we were poised to let the techniques and strategies that had been tested on previous places of the work, things like micro pinning and stone dutchmen and honing where So we’re trying to build on a previous body of knowledge. But we were also rejecting other previously tested techniques such as cast stone for many of the reasons that Robert pointed out to you for the varying of the warp.
And here you see some of the result of the damage of the water intrusion in the tower the damage to the interior finishes that were in evidence in actually the plaster work that had to be taken apart with a loop and taken off in order to get this work done. The carved decorative units and the vermiculated coins are set off of sculptural accents against the polished of the ashlar as Robert said. This is actually, Prime Matero called these the soldiers and the generals and the chiefs, the soldiers being ashlar or there breakline of the ashlar the chiefs being the quoins and the carved units. They’re valued for their individuality, the carved units, and in some cases they are examples of unique craftsmanship. In reference to conservation of material focused as you will hear more on the quoins. And where possible we restored them in place but there was a variety of different techniques used here and of course there were also replacing stone used as well.
Now I want to take us through a little bit on Henry Austin and on what sort of generated the architecture of this building and this period. Austin, may or may not have worked for Eiffel Town. Robert and I were discussing this last night but he certainly is very proud of the fact that he renovated this house which you see here for Joseph Sheffield. This became his calling card and this actually was originally Eiffel Town’s library which Austin turned into a sort of large Italian fantasy.
And this work really comes out of the Romantic Movement that begins with architects like John Nash and most importantly in my mind Karl Friedrich Schinkel, whose Charlottenhof house gardener building which you see here. And this was an architecture that took the elements of Classicism but recombined them in a more casual, off hand asymmetrical manner in order to create pastoral images, things that were appropriate for the country as opposed to being appropriate to urban life. it was designed to evoke not only classical antiquity because this is very much based on a Roman model, but also the more vernacular architecture of Tuscany and the Roman’s at the time.
Now this was very quickly, of course, picked up in the United States, most famously by Andrew Jackson Downing. This is Downing’s page about his Italian villas, and here again you see the characteristic rows of the low elements punctuated by a tower as we have here in Victoria Mansion. There’s a lot that is said of Downing and his contemporaries about the use of stone and the use of color and they are very, very attached to the idea of using light natural stone for this form. And bringing out the qualities in the stone even if you weren’t able to record it in the sense that, what people started to do with grain stucco. They would artificially score the stucco to make it look like ashlar, and they would actually grain it and faux grain on cheaper wood in the windows and this sort of thing.
The idea being that this richness in variety of texture was a very important thing to get the feeling of the building to be appropriate. And, in a sense, this still continues today. This is a house by Greek in Omaha, Nebraska that has just been completed. So this notion, this very, very powerful pastoral notion about what it means to have a kind of gentleman’s residence, in the suburbs or in the country, is a very, very strong thing. And it’s interesting in being applied to Victoria Mansion, as we were discussing this last night as well, in the sense of compression. And part of that I think comes out of Austin’s own experience at Hill House Avenue in New Haven, where he did an awful lot of work.
He not only had, he not only did the Sheffield house but he did this house here for Ricard Dana And what’s interesting about these is their quirkiness. Austin was a very strange architect in a way he was working with a kind of Italian built style but he used, for instance, the decoration on this-these are all Indian motifs, he uses Egyptian motifs on the building. But it’s all done in this very loose accommodation of then what is called the Tradition. Then we have just up the street number 52, is the Norton House, something a lot more like Victoria Mansion but what’s curious here is you see the rendering of the Norton House and he puts it in this idyllic landscape and this in fact is very similar to a drawing in one of Downing’s books that he says is appropriate for a villa of a small country residence, say, 50 or 51 acres. Well, in fact, this exists on a half acre plot in New Haven.
So, already there’s this idea, which I think has carried forward in this modern era of our day, that you can put very big country houses on a small lot and somehow, will your neighbors out of the picture. And here is the plan and elevation of the Norton House. Now I wanted to show you a photograph of this because this to me is, in many ways, I think not only the culmination of Austin’s work, or at least to the Victoria Mansion, because I am a person who spends my life adapting and adding to buildings, as preserving buildings and this kind of thing and so I think what Austin did here as a kind of renovation architect is extremely clever. Whereas he’s not only restoring houses that he’s building this Italianate fancy around it, he’s turning what used to be a very temple-like structure into something that really is much more expressive of the inclusiveness of America in the mid 20th century with very, very vast romantic ideas.
This building, unfortunately and tragically was torn down by Yale in 1957 for a laboratory. It actually had a life after Joseph Sheffield’s occupancy of it as a laboratory but it simply didn’t sustain modern science for very much longer. So we come back here, of course, to Victoria Mansion. Now, the last house I wanted to show you on Hill House Avenue just to talk about the reintegration of more classical motifs into the brownstone aesthetic is the Para House and this actually is one of the few houses on Hill House Avenue that is not by Henry Austin. But, it is a Renaissance revival calaso, it is from 1885 so it very closely predates to Victoria Mansion and there are certainly similarities in the architecture there which I think one has to take note in thinking about the evolution of Austin as a Romantic architect.
Now, all of this about brownstone. Brownstone is, you’re going to hear from a lot of people who know far, far more about brownstone than I do so I’m going to keep my remarks very, very brief on this score. It’s curious that Austin has an architect based in New Haven, very close to the source of the Portland brownstone quarries, was never able to build a building of brownstone in his own milieu. He used brownstone as trim, it’s on the base of the Dana House, it’s on the base of the Norton House. He used it, there are stills and lentils and things like that but to my knowledge, he was never able to build an entire edifice of brownstone. And whether this was a matter of choice or a matter of simple financial inability to do so, remains a very good question, quite frankly. But back then, the quarries which you will see are located right about here, in this little town.
The stone was shipped down to the coast up to Portland and then it was all tooled here in Portland for the erection of the building. And we don’t know how much supervision Austin had, once the drawings are done we had a comment come up here and if there are others in the audience who can correct me on this, please feel free to do so. But to my knowledge the amount of contact he had once the design was done was very limited. And so we don’t know, we know Austin cared very much about surface, if you remember those elevation drawings that I showed you, there’s a lot of care taken into how the subtleties of the trim and the wall and the ashlar work with one another whether it’s stucco, clearly from the nature of the way that those buildings are rendered you know that his preference would be stone. Whether brownstone is another matter, it was more likely at that point limestone or a marble.
And again here is the quarry as it is today, with Ivan and Chris. We talk a little bit now about the weathering properties and what happens to the meaning of this building as it weathers. As I said and as Robert said, this building is really very much about the quality of that figure plainer quality of the ashlar so setting off the quoins and the more elaborately carved elements. And you see, when you have a situation like this, where you’ve got a carved element here, you have what would have been the carved stone out of the sand painted wood. But then what should be in the middle a very, very smooth band of ash log the whole idea of what this building is, is now somehow compromised.
Whether or not this building remains, whether or not that stone is considered to be sufficiently intact as a weather barrier, that’s another matter and that’s very much an issue completely because that certain point that you have the stone start to scale back you’re exposing the earth and you’re allowing more water into the wall and that sort of thing. But, from a purely aesthetic point of view, you have compromised the meaning of this building. And the whole notion of what weathering does to a building and how it changes it is a very interesting topic. This of course if the famous building in Rotterdam by Marcel Dowyer, only about 50 years old. It’s on the cover of David Leatherbarrow’s book on weathering, but it’s a building which I have seen and experienced. And it is something that is almost unrecognizable from what it was originally. Now, this transformation may be perceived as a good thing, it may not be, but we have to recognize that it’s different and you have to be able to accept that kind of difference in the meaning as the building evolves.
Here’s an example of Finlandia Hall which is a very, very famous example of a stone failure. Where this is a corbel marble plaid link by Arvo Aalto from the 1960s and you see what’s happened is the Carrara marble panels have relentlessly all cupped and bowed. And interestingly enough the preservation argument around here centered on trying-they felt as a building which is being treated very much in the way the Victoria Mansion is being treated here, as a museum artifact, is something where the quality of what the original fabric is, is more important, the original idea is more important than merely stabilizing the building and making it whole. So, what they did here is they actually replaced this stone with thicker stone panels and those of you who were at the Building With Stone Conference a couple years ago may know this anyway, that the new stone panels are doing exactly the same thing.
So I think here the stone is telling you I don’t want to behave this way, this is just not the way you’re supposed to use me. And I think there’s a real lesson in this and whether or not they will go back and do this again is another matter. Based with a similar problem on the Anapo Tower in Chicago, the building owners in which Dan Yelsner’s decided would be clad in granite so it’s no longer pristine and white its become a light grey, but they’ve got a building now that’s going to last. They made a decision there that it was more important to change the material, take whatever consequences from a preservation standpoint that means, change the original idea of the building in some subtle way but set
And I think where this is going to come importantly into play in the next phase or one of the next phases at Victoria Mansion, is precisely that West wall the Robert mentioned a few minutes ago. And because the West wall has remained remarkably intact which you are beginning to see though if you look at this picture, you are beginning to see areas where delamination is starting to occur. If you go up there and sound the wall you can hear it. So to me, I think one of the great challenges- one of the great future preservation challenges for Victoria Mansion is going to be figuring out a way to keep this wall intact without having to replace the stone. And without scaling back which you’ve got there so you maintain this wonderful relationship of very very proud figure windows surrounds and coins against this very very smooth wall. And I am personally very interested to see if the conservation community can come up with methods that may be able to stabilize and hold this, this is the great challenge for the next generation.
Now that’s some of the work that we’ve done, that we did. Robert mentioned the structural stabilization of the tower here, here are some detailed shots of what that stone on the tower looked like and the binding that had been put around it. We came up with a solution for that. First of all we went through and documented in a manner similar to how exactly we were going to treat all of the different stones in the tower, whether they were going to be replaced, conserved, partially conserved or left alone. But in the structure of the tower itself we developed and we devised these details, further down so that the stones could be better bonded we can provide a stronger link at the corner. And then there’s the structure of the Belvedere.
Within the structure of the Belvedere itself up here, we inserted new lintel pieces behind-after taking the roof off, which actually was something that came up as a result of bringing Signley on board and maybe they will speak some more about that. That actually was sort of a collaborative venture of beams and methods pieces that have evolved as the project went on but it’s not part of our original contract document. But we were able to stabilize it from within, put this back on and have a tower that is adequate indeed with sort of current code.
But I wanted to focus here on one particular aspect of our conservation work, just to talk about a method that was applied more broadly throughout the building. But that is on the conservation actually replacement of these capitals and to give you some idea of the amount of work that went in this. And there’s the detail of those capitals.
Okay, there’s the capital itself, and this is what we had to go on. And what David Coe, my colleague will get this more deep, he worked up a drawing and there was a lot of back and forth between the architect, the fabricator, in the end about exactly how this was going to be realized. But I think here you see that we finally sort of got it. And this was a very long, slow, endurative process . And in the end I think produced a very good result, but it was something that required-there’s a lot of work involved in this and I only say this because this is the kind of thing where the economics of many projects would not permit doing this sort of thing on a large scale, they’re having to sort of recreate these things. But this is a decision that was made in this particular case that we wanted to be as authentic and archaeologically correct as possible and I think in this case we were successful.
And I’ll just take you to just looking at a few shots you can see that the marked difference at least at this point between the newer quoins and the restored quoins and of course, this is all new stone in here. Everything surrounding the window, the pediment here, this whole surrounds, so there was a lot of new stone to have to go in and restore it. And finally the view of before on the left looking up at that corner where you see that severe weathering from the water coming down right here and then how this was replaced. And we also did work, we did do some work on the water mansions systems and downspouts and hopefully that will prevent that from recurring again.