Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Architect as Archaeologist

On July 3, 1863, as General Robert E. Lee intensified his attack on the Union center at Gettysburg's Cemetery Ridge, Daniel Klingel's farm house looked out on the Civil War's darkest hour.

Nearly 150 years later, preservation architects Oehrlein & Associates Architects would be charged by the National Park Service with restoring the residence's exterior to that very day in 1863, the log structure built originally in 1812 and over time sheltering many families since the Klingels from the more typical battles of everyday life.

"We have spent the past 18 months doing research on the house," Principal Mary Oehrlein said, explaining that painstaking historical research and documentation of any project involves all manner of archival, photographic and records research: census records; newspapers; trade directories; property transfers; deeds; wills that may describe a property; estate sale records; inventories (especially important where the person conducting the study may have walked from room to room) and even paint analysis. The Klingel house, sited in the middle of the battlefield, is exposed to tours that go by and will be used by the NPS for its own purposes.

Rules of Engagement
According to Oehrlein, historical architects play by an entirely different set of rules than mainstream practitioners because “…you’re not starting with a blank piece of paper or an empty site where you can put anything you want on it. You have to work within the confines of an existing building,” she says, noting that even where alterations are mandated, there’s a limit to what can be done. “You have to be more creative about how you accommodate a new mechanical system, or get an elevator in, or make a building more accessible without destroying something that somebody said needs to stay.”

It was these kinds of parameters that presented a variety of challenges for the firm when it created the Hotel Monaco a decade ago. Conceived as a post office with a series of wing additions from 1836-67, the property later served as an office building replete with acoustic tile ceilings, carpeting, Formica counters, partitions, fluorescent lighting, mechanical and electrical systems and “phone wires draped all over the place,” all of which were taken out in order to see and measure what had been there, according to Oehrlein. Vacant for 15 years at the inception of the hotel process, the structure, at 700 F Street NW, was both a restoration and rehabilitation project, the former denoting the retention of materials from a significant time while permitting the removal of other materials, and the latter focusing on retention and repair of materials but with allowances for replacement in light of a property’s deterioration (per the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for The Treatment of Historic Properties). Oehrlein, who said the Standards are clearly guidelines for historical architects, added that during a rehabilitation, the specific needs of the new user must be accommodated, in this case a 21st century hotel.

In the Hotel Monaco interior, while certain spaces and finishes were carefully preserved and restored, naturally each guestroom required a bathroom, and two new elevators were installed at the north side of the building where the structure could be modified without major interventions.

“There had been an alteration to one of the really beautiful circular stairs,” Oehrlein says, “where the government had put an elevator in the middle of it.” The elevator was removed and the stairwell restored, along with an accruing skylight.

Material Rules

In a major restoration, rehabilitation and renovation of St. Matthew’s Cathedral, 1725 Rhode Island Avenue NW, over the course of three years Oehrlein & Associates Architects met multiple challenges in transforming the 1893 multi-use property (the church was initially established in another building in 1840 at 15th and H Streets). These included eradicating roof leaks and repairing plaster falling from the ceiling, reconfiguring office and living space, and considering a shoebox full of tiny glass tiles from a 35-foot tall mosaic.

“We started by making the envelope of the building water-tight,” Oehrlein says, replacing the copper-clad dome with a new dome fabricated to look exactly like the original. Slate was replaced or repaired, and brick and stone pointed to further weather-proof the structure. The mosaic was repaired by gluing pieces back on the wall by a process of injection, and the surface was restored, cleaned and regrouted where necessary, as was the cathedral’s marble in places. New carpeting and lighting were installed throughout the structure, with artwork designed and installed where old organ pipes had been. The basement, in a major renovation, included upgraded conference rooms in a new conference center and a redesigned dining room in the old rectory. The reconfiguration of two adjacent buildings provided parish offices and residential apartments for the priests who live there. “There was a lot going on,” Oehrlein quipped.

Perseverance Rules

Trained as a design architect, an entity she prefers not to hire “because they are not happy in this kind of work” (Oehrlein’s staff, for the most part, has advanced degrees in historic preservation), Oehrlein revealed that as a student she was admonished by professors for taking up space that male students should occupy. “They told me I was wasting their time,” she reflected, adding that when she guest lectures today and sees that 50 percent of the class is comprised of women, it’s a different world.

“Counter to those professors who told me I didn’t belong, I had architectural history professors who were supportive and encouraged me to pursue preservation,” she said, which was a brave new world at that time. Spending summers working for the Historic American Building Survey, where student architects go out and measure buildings throughout the country, Oehrlein came to embrace the fact that in choosing a different path she was never relegated to drafting rooms.

“My first job was with a construction company that was doing some preservation work,” she recalled, explaining they were restoring buildings because people had come to them about leaky roofs or masonry falling off walls. With virtually no preservation architects in existence at the time, Oehrlein blazed some trails by spending time at the Library of Congress researching, for example, which materials were used in 19th century masonry construction, what the mortar mixes were, how water was kept out of walls and what the caulking materials were. “Nobody can get into the stacks now,” she said, “but I had a stack pass and would spend days at a time there. I did research into the technical side of things because if you don’t understand what’s in the building, you can’t decide how to repair it.”

With completion of construction documents for a restoration/ conservation of the exterior stone of the U.S. Capitol on deck, a process that, due to various circumstances with the Architect of the Capitol, took nine years, Oehrlein calls it “a pretty wonderful opportunity” though Congress’ funding of the project is another matter. “We have projects that have gone on longer than that though,” she said. “There’s the stop and start: the review process; the approval process; then it stops because the economy is bad; then the economy gets better and starts up again but there’s a redesign. We’ve had projects that have been through two economic downturns before we finally got to construction,” she explained. With historical architecture, "that happens."


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