Masonry buildings are oft en the cornerstones of downtowns across the country, with many dating back decades or centuries and serving as visual ties to a city’s past. However, their long-lasting natures can serve as a double-edged sword when it comes to upkeep or, in some cases, restoration; aft er all, masonry buildings have been there forever, so why would they need anything, right? For that reason, it can be a challenge to bring stakeholders and city officials on board. Still, with a likely beloved landmark, crumbling mortar will not be accepted.
Nor for that matter will spotty or dirty bricks be a welcomed sight; however, there are a variety of ways to clean a historic masonry building. Water cleaning offers the “gentlest means possible,” according to the National Park Service website, which cites several water cleaning methods: soaking, water washing, water washing with detergents and steam/hot-pressurized water cleaning. Chemical cleaning can also be used to remove dirt and soiling that includes acids, alkalies and organic compounds. Other methods include poulticing to remove stains and graffiti in addition to abrasive and mechanical cleaning.
With so many options available, it is vital to test all cleaning methods or materials prior beginning the cleaning project. In the quest to find the “gentlest means possible,” the NPS website states, “All too often simple methods, such as a low-pressure water wash, are not even considered, yet they frequently are effective, safe, and not expensive. Water of slightly higher pressure or with a non-ionic detergent additive also may be effective. It is worth repeating that these methods should always be tested prior to considering harsher methods; they are safer for the building and the environment, often safer for the applicator and relatively inexpensive.” The U.S. General Services Administration, like the NPS, cautions against overly aggressive cleaning, instead recommending the use of a very mild blend of inhibited acidic ingredients and wetting agents specifically formulated for restorative cleaning of brick and natural stone surfaces. Similarly, facility managers — for the best cleaning and to protect historic buildings — need to be mindful of what water sources they use, with GSA suggesting potable water that is non-staining and free of oils, acids, alkalis and organic matter.
The NPS also stresses the importance of identifying any prior treatments, if such records exist, noting on its website, “Sometimes if streaked or spotty areas do not seem to get cleaner following an initial cleaning, closer inspection and analysis may be warranted. The discoloration may turn out not to be dirt but the remnant of a water repellent coating applied long ago, which has darkened the surface of the masonry over time.” In this case, several cleaning agents might have to be tried to dissolve and remove the coating; however, sometimes the blemish will be a permanent fixture. While cleaning can improve appearances, masonry buildings at times might need a little face-lift.
Restored to its former beauty
Norwood, Mass., Memorial Municipal Building, also called Norwood Town Hall, has been a beloved landmark ever since it was dedicated Nov. 11, 1928 — the 10th anniversary of the armistice ending World War I — in honor of those killed in the war. The four-story building was constructed out of Weymouth, Mass., granite and had the good fortune of being completed prior to the Great Depression. Beyond its impressive granite facade, Norwood Town Hall features a 50-bell carillon tower, which houses the Walter F. Tilton Memorial Carillon, one of nine carillons in Massachusetts and the seventh largest in the United States.
The building had been restored in the past; however, it became apparent around 2011 a new round of restoration work was required.
“The latest restoration project came from leaking around the windows,” Bernie Cooper, assistant general manager of the town of Norwood, said. He noted some of the stones were also falling from the tower, and after exploratory work was completed, he added, “The decision was made to do restoration work. The tower, in particular, needed a lot of work.
“The town takes a lot of pride in (Town Hall),” Cooper said. “It was not a question of whether we do this, just how expensive it was going to be.”
The project spanned approximately a year and a half, from the setup and the design phase to the release of the retainer. The entire project was overseen by the permanent building construction committee, which is manned by volunteers, each member coming from a professional construction background. Cooper noted it is a very New England approach, saying the committee was headed by the right people who in turn hired the right professionals to do the task. He added, “The project went well.”
William Kinsman, who led the permanent building committee at the time, stated, “We handled the logistics of everything.”
This included finding parking for employees and maintaining a safe egress so the public could get into the building — a major challenge since the tower is centered above the main entry. To address this, a roof shelter was built to protect town hall workers and visitors; additionally, an egress kept the building handicap accessible. Preservation also remained a top priority for the committee and town.
“Once gone, they are gone forever,” Kinsman said of historic buildings. “You have to put money into older buildings to maintain their integrity. You can’t ignore them. I’m all for maintaining.”
From a town standpoint, Cooper stated staying fully operationally proved to be the biggest challenge during the restoration project. “The racket was deafening,” he commented. “Occasionally, I’d have to get up and go to a new room to get any work done.” Not only was there noise, but parking could be challenging as well, and he added, “One of the biggest challenges was maintaining access (to the building).”
Another issue with masonry work, in addition to the noise, is the mess, according to Cooper. “We just had to grit our teeth and hope they didn’t find any surprises,” he said.
The project, which brought on board Gienapp Design, Contracting Specialist Inc. and Compass Project Management, cost approximately $3 million and included complete scaffolding of the bell tower to remove, clean and replace the existing masonry veneer. Additionally, the slate roof and its copper were replaced in select areas to stop the leaking.
While beloved, Kinsman noted convincing citizens of maintenance can be a challenge when it comes to masonry buildings. “To the general public, it’s stone; you don’t have to do anything for it.” However, he said, “You have to do maintenance just like with any other building.”
View the U.S. General Services Administration’s guidelines for “General Cleaning of Exterior Brick Masonry” at www.gsa.gov/portal/content/112842. The National Park Service’s preservation briefs can be view at https://www.nps.gov/tps/how-to-preserve/briefs/1-cleaning-water-repellent.htm.