Plaster artisans work in Baltimore to restore landmark structures through the region

A Remington warehouse has become a hospital for ailing landmarks. A handful of artisans here repair the damage of time, leaking roofs, earthquakes and fires.

A sign at 2700 Sisson St. announces the home of Hayles and Howe. Within the company’s walls, skilled practitioners are performing some artful plaster surgery.

In the firm’s white powdery working chamber, a new ceiling and fancy rosettes created for the Philadelphia Metropolitan Opera House are making their debut, ready for the applause when the 1908 hall reopens as a Live Nation concert venue late this year.

Others workers were busy on a recent day emptying bags of plaster of Paris and adding water to create a new cornice for the Cannon House Office Building in Washington.

Around the studio were molds for plaster repairs of the egg-and-dart pattern that runs around the lobby ceiling of Baltimore’s Hotel Revival, formerly the Peabody Court, at Cathedral and Monument streets.

Since the United Kingdom-based Hayles and Howe arrived in Baltimore in 1991, its plasterers have repaired the Custom House on Gay Street, the Hippodrome Theatre, the Basilica of the Assumption, the House of Delegates chamber in Annapolis and the flamboyant Gothic interior of First and Franklin Presbyterian Church — and many more buildings in need of careful restoration.

The business began 40 years ago in Bristol, England. It established a U.S. operation in the 1980s.

After working on the New Jersey State Capitol in Trenton, the firm’s owners relocated it to Baltimore at the Bagby Building in Harbor East. As that neighborhood grew in glamour and rental prices, the crew found a larger and more practical studio on Sisson Street, in what had been a Baltimore souvenir post card business warehouse.

They also found love — I’m told four of the male visiting plasterers now have American wives.

There are six plaster artisans in the studio; another seven employees work in contracts, sales and administration, and 22 technicians do the hands-on work of fitting the plaster sections cast in Remington into permanent homes elsewhere.

Ian Jenkins is the master mold maker. He's from Bristol and lives in Towson. He makes impressions of shattered columns with rubbery silicone. Then, using his hands, he transforms raw powdery gypsum into Ionic capitals.

Hayles and Howe made a name for itself in Washington after it completed two large contracts, a ceiling restoration of Postal Square adjoining Union Station and the old Stanley Warner Theater in downtown Washington. Homeowners who want a fancier dining room are also among the firm’s customers.

“We rely on our federal work,” said Mark Mordhorst, a former cabinetmaker from Richmond, Va., who is the firm’s project director. “We are also up against a tight schedule. The House of Representatives is going to be using the Cannon Building after the summer recess.”

Studio workers Shawn Smith, Jim Meade, Justin Simmons and Wills Gorsuch Mayo worked this week to re-create the fancy interior of Philadelphia’s Broad Street opera house, which was vacant for a number of years and wound up being a church. It’s interior was pretty well shot.

“Because it’s a concert venue, and the music is going to be very loud, the thinking was to replace the crumbling ornamental plaster entirely,” Mordhurst said.

Work done in the 19th century at Baltimore’s Lovely Lane United Methodist Church in the Old Goucher neighborhood drew the admiration of Hayles and Howe artisans. While Mordhurst was working there, he noted the decorative plastering known in the trade as a “mudwork” — a technique used there in the 1800s by the Baltimore firm Emmart and Quartley. Artisans had used their hands in wet plaster to form black-eyed susans and other motifs in hallways and along staircases.

This type of mudwork also appears throughout Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon — and Mordhurst discovered it elsewhere, too.

“When we got the job of restoring the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, I was looking around, and there was the exact design and technique used there. It was all but covered over by layers of paint,” Mordhurst said.

“I got a copy of Adolphus Emmart’s obituary in 1910,” he said. “It said he had plastered what was then called the State, War and Navy Department in the Secretary of War Suite. It was fairly gaudy too.”

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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