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Here, everything old is made new again

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If Raymond Book does his job just right, no one should know he did his job at all.

At a crammed construction site wedged into downtown's west side, hulking cranes and other heavy machinery chip away at the aged exterior of the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center.

But in a dilapidated brick warehouse tucked along Druid Hill Park's wooded northern edge, Book and his crew quietly mold wet plaster into ornate details that will adorn the 89-year-old theater and restore its empty interior to its previous glory.

"If audiences walk in and point at something we made and say, 'That looks really new,' then we haven't done our job," said Book, a sculptor with Baltimore-based Hayles & Howe, an international ornamental plastering company. "We have to make it look old."

By February, audiences should be rendering such opinions if the Hippodrome's $65 million restoration ends in time for its inaugural production, The Producers.

Yesterday at Camden Yards, officials from Baltimore and Broadway joined to announce the Hippodrome's opening date. Mayor Martin O'Malley spoke passionately of how the Hippodrome will serve as the anchor to a revitalization he hopes will stretch three blocks south to the stadium.

"We're celebrating the rebirth of a great American city," O'Malley said. "Vision is the ability to imagine something others can't see."

With the vision for the Hippodrome 61 percent complete, it is up to workers such as Book to make sure its historical heritage is returned to full focus.

"The whole point of doing historical renovation rather than to build a new theater is to capture the elaborate plaster moldings you don't find in new construction," said Rick Slosson, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority. "Those details are a lost art."

Hayles & Howe has provided ornamental plastering at such high-profile buildings as the U.S. Supreme Court, London's Buckingham Palace and New York's Grand Central Terminal.

Nearly all of the company's restoration work originates from the Druid Park Drive warehouse. The nondescript office is awash in plaster dust, and the hands and forearms of the company's employees look as if they had been set in casts.

Chief among them is Book, whose sculpture works are displayed in galleries throughout Maryland, including Baltimore's Gomez Gallery.

Under a contract with Whiting-Turner, the project's general contractor, Hayles & Howe must reproduce some 40,000 square feet of plaster to match the Hippodrome's original design. Most of it is repaired while still affixed to the theater's walls, ceilings and balconies. The rest is replicated in the studio, molded to match those remaining pieces in texture, design and scale.

Hayles & Howe employees at the Hippodrome work atop the four-story-tall honeycomb scaffolding that fills the cavernous theater. At the top, wooden planks serve as a makeshift floor that allows ceiling restoration.

Workers remove damaged molds bulging with all types of plaster decorations -- flowers, corn husks, urns, griffins -- and deliver the pieces to the Hayles & Howe studio where they are put together. A mold is made and used to cast new pieces that are then placed back in the theater.

"All this is like an archaeological expedition," Book said.

In some cases, however, original pieces do not exist. Book had to reproduce two 10-foot-tall shields that once hung from the canopies above the seating boxes protruding from the sides of the theater.

Book could not find drawings of the shields by the theater's designer, Thomas Lamb. So he turned to the Maryland Historical Trust, where he found a 1916 photo of the shields. He then used a magnifying glass to understand as much detail as possible.

Book decided to mold shields that feature a man's bearded head perched at the top with roses rolling off the ends of his whiskers. In the middle of the shields rise the distinctive, interlaced letters, H-T, for Hippodrome Theater.

Said Mark Sissman, president and chief executive officer of the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts: "The challenge is to preserve what is old, re-create what you can't preserve and still create a modern theater all at the same time."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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