By COLIN STAUB
At the hands of union plasterers, highly artful and intricate molding work within the Oregon Supreme Court building is being rebuilt as part of a wider renovation project.
The Supreme Court building, located a block from the Capitol in Salem, is more than two years into a major interior renovation aimed at maintaining the historic structure and improving safety and efficiency for the future.
Workers represented by Plasterers Local 82 have been busy preserving the historic character of the 108-year-old building. The building contains a great deal of plaster ornamentation, and workers at union plaster specialist Harver Co. are installing molding that’s virtually identical to the original work.
Art Cortez, owner and president of Harver Co., says rebuilding the ornamentation is a highly skilled operation.
“They were handcrafted, molded, and they’ve always been installed by an individual,” Cortez said of the building’s plaster pieces. “You’re more of an artist than you are a craftsman.”
To fabricate the new components, plasterers removed portions of the existing plaster work, brought them to a warehouse Harver rented near the job site, and created molds of the old pieces, said Richard Almodovar, plastering superintendent on the Supreme Court building job.
Creating the mold involves placing the old component inside a fiberglass box and pouring urethane around it to produce a room temperature vulcanizing (RTV) mold.
Fabricating the new pieces took about four months, Almodovar said. The finished pieces were returned to the Supreme Court building, where plasterers are currently working on installation.
When the plasterers are done with the renovation, Cortez anticipates the replaced cornices will be there for at least another 100 years.
Harver plasterers will continue their work at the Supreme Court building until the summer. The renovation is being led by general contractor Hoffman Construction, with design work by Hennebery Eddy Architects. The building is owned by the Oregon Judicial Department.
Key to preservation: skill
The plasterers’ skills were once common in building trades, but the industry has reduced in size since drywall became the norm in construction. Their work remains invaluable, however, particularly in restoring historic structures.
Kent Sickles, business manager for Plasterers Local 82, says the union has made a concerted effort to contact historical societies throughout Oregon. He wants to communicate the fact that this industry exists, that there are local workers with the skills to renovate the intricate details in historic buildings. Otherwise, historic character within the buildings will almost certainly be lost.
Cortez pointed to cornices high on the walls inside the Supreme Court building as prime examples.
“Normally, [contractors would] just take these off and do away with it, because they don’t know how to put them back,” he said.
“Unless you’ve got a company like this that can do it, it’s irreplaceable,” Sickles added.
Although the plasterers get steady work, few of their projects involve replicating the intricate ornamentation found in the Supreme Court building. Sickles said he hasn’t seen anything near like it since plasterers worked on a major renovation of Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in the 1980s.
More typical jobs include restoring original plaster in addition projects, when old architecture is tied into new construction. Plasterers also take on a lot of fireproofing work.
Cortez sees an opportunity for more of the intricate plastering jobs in restorations of historic houses in Oregon.
“They have all these ornamental pieces inside them on a much smaller scale, but nobody knows how to repair them so they’re tearing them off, and putting drywall back up,” Cortez said. Often that’s simply because they don’t know who to call to properly restore the ornamentation.
Local 82 ranks on the rise
Local 82 is also looking to spread the word about the plastering industry in order to bring new workers in. It was once primarily a trade passed down from generation to generation, but these days, most workers come into plastering through apprenticeship programs. The union relies on word of mouth, job site visits and online outreach, to let potential workers know about the industry.
Plasterers Local 82 membership has fluctuated widely in recent years. From the 1970s through the early 2000s it ran between 140 and 160 members, Sickles said. During the recession it fell substantially, and just five years ago membership sat at 63.
Now, it’s risen back to 120 members. Sickles credits an uptick in the economy and the union’s successful organizing to bring in new workers. And there seems to be more room for growth in the industry: Cortez said Harver is looking to take on more plastering jobs, and the problem now is finding enough journeymen skilled in plastering work.
“My guess is it’s not going to stop,” he said of the industry’s expansion, “and that this is actually going to grow bigger than most people can imagine.”