Interview With a Master Mason

Tony Golden on the Restoration of the Plymouth Portico

Restoring the Plymouth Portico was a challenge for all of the professionals involved—none more so than Tony Golden, a mason and crew foreman from Chapman Waterproofing in Boston, Mass. Preservation asked him to describe the surprises he encountered during the process of reconstruction: 

Tony Golden: We were involved in the entire job here, from about April 1st to October 1st of 2008. And unlike some jobs, this was very hands-on. We had a very small crew of no more than three or four masons at any one time—often just two of us.

The most difficult challenge was rebuilding the tiled vault from underneath. We found in a lot of places that, not only was the face tile compromised, but so were as many as three layers of structural tile behind that. So here we were doing all our work from underneath and rebuilding from top to bottom.

This is only my theory, but I believe the original workers built a form and laid structural tile on the form. Then they pulled away the form work and tiled the vault with face tiles—just the way you tile a bathroom. The face tiles have a matte finish—much of which was worn away here. The structural tiles above were different, more like terra cotta tiles and much longer.

When we got into the upper layers of tile, we discovered they were saturated with water. This place had been neglected for so long. We went through eight or more inches of tile and on top of that was the lightweight concrete filler and the whole thing was saturated. Some places were much worse than others.

I'll admit that, in the beginning, we all had reservations about working under this thing when its integrity was questionable. Here we were working  under a massive amount  of masonry and taking it apart little by little. But eventually we got a good handle on how the structure was working from an engineering point of view. You could see once we starting taking it apart how the thrusts were working in conjunction with the perimeter steel.

We injection grouted some of it because there were voids. Then we demo'd the stuff that was no good and rebuilt layers of the tile outward.  But not all our work was on the ceiling. We did a lot of cleaning on the granite. The place was neglected so long there were stalactites or encrustation coming down from the ceiling on the granite capitals. … It was really a mess. So this was all carefully taken off, and soda blasted, before it was sealed and finished with a lead weather cap to get it watertight. We also worked with a lot of samples to make sure we got the color right on the surface tile.

One of the interesting things was that the Guastavino face tile turned out to be extremely lightweight. … When you pick one tile up, you can't believe how light the thing is. That really helped when we were  tiling over our heads. There were some areas here where we had to put up forms and braces.

But in the end, I thought the result was good—very  good.

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