By Bobbie Stewart
Scraping crusty mortar and stripping years of flaking paint off of dilapidated windows may not be the most glamorous job, but to the artisans working on the former Hotel Ponce de Leon Hall, traveling back in time with a National Historic Landmark makes it worth it.
“Look at this,” Project Manager and artist Mary Aldrich said as she pointed to an ornament carved into terra cotta. “This is 30 feet up in the air — such small details you don’t see from the ground. You don’t have to do this. They (the original artists) did decorative detail by hand. That’s what makes this craftsmanship so special. It’s very detailed and beautiful.”
Aldrich, along with nearly a dozen other trained artisans, work for International Fine Art Conservation Studios (IFACS), a company dedicated to restoring historic buildings. The team can be found perched at various points on scaffolding, repairing the effects of the natural elements — from making molds for broken decorative details to matching near-exact colors to existing terra cotta and brick.
The Ponce renovation, which began in January, joins the royal ranks of other IFACS projects, including Buckingham Palace in England, Biltmore House in North Carolina and state capitols in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Alabama. The exterior facelift will cost approximately $4 million, and is being paid for by a $2 million grant from the state legislature and matching non-tuition funds from the college.
The Ponce, today the centerpiece of Flagler College, was a grand resort that opened in 1888. It was built by Henry M. Flagler, an industrialist, railroad pioneer and co-founder of Standard Oil, and it has been designated as a National Historic Landmark. Flagler has spent more than $30 million in restoring the Ponce over the years.
The restoration firm’s work on the Ponce will focus mostly on repairing the roof, walls, terra cotta, windows (approximately 1,000) and woodwork, according to Dr. Leslee Keys, the college’s director of historic preservation. Metal scaffolding climbs the building’s walls within the courtyard’s confines and up, what used to be, Ponce’s water towers — appearing almost like dental braces set to repair imperfections.
“Old buildings are like old people and old cars — things age, they break, they wear out,” said Geoffrey Steward, IFACS chief executive officer. “Considering the sun, rain and hurricanes this building endured, its condition is extremely good.”
He should know. His team thoroughly studied Ponce’s condition last fall, photographing cracked bricks and broken windows, as well as testing various treatments. Their findings and recommendations culminated in a 24-page report, and reflected Steward’s philosophy of “going back to first principles” to recreate materials akin to original ones.
“Our staff has to understand the surfaces on which we’re working,” he said. “Part of our technique is to isolate the testing necessary, and to make sure that our methods are the least damaging to the surfaces we work on. And part of the ability of restoring and conserving is understanding the hand of the artist.”
In conversations with Steward and Aldrich, that is something of their practice that is evident: not only their skill in, but their affinity for, imagining what the process may have been like for artists decades upon decades ago. To them, historic buildings take on an almost human, delicate, form, and one can hear it in the way they describe what they do. Terra cotta, mortar, grout — substances rugged and perhaps drab — are more like fragile threads in what Steward and Aldrich call the historical “fabric” of the building.
“When you’ve worked on buildings as long as I have, you get to know them and understand how they live and breathe, their strengths and weaknesses," said Steward, now in his 43rd year in the business. “Every other building I’ve worked on has been different from every other.”
Steward’s company has been working on restorative projects at Flagler intermittently over the past 25 years.
Because of the Ponce’s age, artisans have also had to act as investigators of the past, looking for clues to the building’s original construction. Matching paint colors hasn’t been easy, since early photographs of the 1887 structure were not in color.
“We have to look at the values, in black and white photography,” Aldrich said. “It’s sort of like urban archeology in a way, so that’s neat.”
Aldrich is no stranger to uncovering the Ponce’s secrets. Four years ago in the Flagler Room while restoring one of the murals, she discovered the signature of the original artist (Virgilio Tojetti) in the mural’s ethereal clouds. Later that summer, her team also found the signature of previous restoration artists above a doorframe in the dining hall.
As the Ponce remains a majestic landmark, artisans will come and go, leaving their mark in the many upgrades. Steward estimates that windows will need repainting in 20-25 years and the terra cotta will need cleaning in 30-40 years.
“We’re just sort of another stepping stone in the life of the building,” he said, “to preserve it and keep it going for the next generation.
“You can’t build an historic building like this," he said, taking in the view of the Ponce’s front facade. “There’s only one of these. It’s important for students to work and live in interiors that aren’t sterile. You may not notice an ornament, but subliminally you appreciate it. Later you’ll come to realize what a blessing it was to go to school in such a wonderful environment.”
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