Restoring 17th-Century Architecture
It's not every day that I get the opportunity to work with 17th-Century Limestone imported from France. So when the homeowner presented me with this particular project, I was feeling both excited and nervous. Nervous due to the age and history of the stone and how invaluable that makes it, excited because of that same reason. I wouldn't say that I was reluctant to take on the job, perhaps just a tad cautious. I had plenty of experience working with historical masonry, but that was mainly old brick and stone walls. These were free-standing architectural structures that were once part of a European Gothic Cathedral. They were originally supported with buttresses, stained glass windows, and other aspects of the church, tying it all together. The work ahead of me involved using cranes to properly place some of the massive stones, a great deal of foresight, and some innovation to fully support the structures with modern-day materials.
Armed with photos of the architecture, a library card, and a strong desire to meet the challenge ahead, I began researching and planning. Besides the need for a traditional lime-based mortar, so as not to overpower the limestone with Portland cement, I also needed an experienced lift operator. Luckily, the homeowner's brother-in-law was just that. The other issue was supporting everything at its weakest points without compromising its authentic look. The fewer additions to the architecture, the better.
The first task at hand was digging, forming, and pouring the concrete foundations for each structure. Once those were in place, I began organizing the stones in front of their corresponding areas. The arches and the rounded window were missing several pieces, so creating the required stones out of the existing spare materials was the only option. Easier said than done, but this is where years of experience with shaping stone comes into play.
I began with the doorways. Each one of these pieces, from the bases to the capstones, weigh at least a ton. This aspect of the project required a crane and multiple straps capable of supporting the weight. It is a very time-consuming process and not to mention dangerous. But with accurate measurements, a level surface provided by the lime mortar, and a steady hand at the controls of the crane, we were able to pull it off. Of course, that is not to say that there wasn't a wide variety of hiccups along the way. Because there most certainly were. But those hiccups are what make for a good challenge and a greater reward.
The arches, believe it or not, were much more labor intensive. As opposed to the doorways, the arches required steel strapping along their sides, into the concrete wall behind them, and steel buttresses at each pressure point. Stability was the main priority. While the lime mortar does help to keep a level surface between the stones, it provides little assurance that the structure will hold together. The arches were all placed by hand and held in place while the steel strapping was applied.
But the rounded window was undoubtedly the most intricate feature. Not only did each piece have to be strapped together and into the concrete wall behind it with steel, but it also needed to be encased with a steel strap to hold it all in its original form. After aligning the bases of the structure, I began building it up from the center and then working my way back down. I wanted to support the upper sides as best as possible, and this was the only means to do so. Once the majority of it was in place, we then screwed the steel plate around it.
The goal was to keep these structures standing for generations to come and to also be safe enough for children to play around. I feel that I have achieved that goal. This project has been challenging, exciting, and inspirational. I am grateful to have been chosen to see it through, and it has helped me to grow in multiple ways in both my personal and professional life. It has also opened a variety of doors for me as a masonry contractor in Victoria, B.C. and given me the confidence to take on similar jobs. Having the opportunity to restore these invaluable works of art is something that I do not take lightly. I have a new found appreciation for the stonemasons and craftsman of previous eras. The amount of time, energy, and persistence that was involved in the planning and building of these relics is nothing short of amazing. I am honored and proud to be a part of resurrecting them and their artistic relevance.