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Hidden In Plain Sight: Washtenaw County Conservators Are Helping Keep Historic Buildings Intact

Oct 16, 2017

There is no doubt that Washtenaw County has many historic and beautiful buildings.  But have you ever wondered who helps keep those structures looking the way they do?  As part of our "Hidden in Plain Sight" series, 89.1 WEMU's Jorge Avellan interviewed workers who do just that.


That’s the sound of history being preserved.  Yet you may not think that’s what’s being done if you walk by the University of Michigan’s Rackham Building.  Ron Koenig scrapes of excess filling used to repair cracks on a granite door frame outside the building.    

*Click through pictures above.

"One of the things that we were concerned about is if we didn’t get it repaired, the pieces of it may fall off and break.  This is a very decorative piece of stone.  It’s carved so doing replacement on this would have been just a massive undertaking."

Ron is an architectural conservator and co-owns the business Building Arts & Conservation in Saline.  For the last twenty years, the University of Michigan and other clients have hired him to preserve iconic structures, like the 1930’s Rackham Building.

Jorge:  "What kind of design is that?  Is that Art Deco?  Or what would you call that?"  

Ron:  "Yup.  It’s Art Deco exactly.  So this building is an amalgam of a bunch of different styles, but it sort of has Art Deco at its heart.  And William Kapp was the architect."

Ron is joined by his co-worker Kristin Bartlett.

"I love it.  This is what I love to do."

She's a metals conservator who's been working with Ron for six months.  She grew up in Ann Arbor and now lives in Ypsilanti.

"And it’s just so nice that I’m part of the future of this building because without us, these buildings would fall in disrepair and they would be ugly, and people wouldn’t see the importance of them."

As both Ron and Kristin sit on the floor working on the stone, Don Watkins, who works at the Rackham Building, walks by and notices the progress that’s been made since earlier in the week.

Don:  "It was obvious a couple of days ago when it was splitting away from the column.  And it’s pretty much put together now.  It’s just a matter of making it look like it hasn’t been touched. 

Jorge:  "And you work here so you see this building every day.  Do you feel a sense of pride when you see someone like Ron who is working on something like this and he cares about the building?  It’s not just another paycheck for him. 

Don:  "Sure.  This is a highlight of the campus.  Many buildings are."

Another of those buildings is the Cook Research Law Library.  Its gothic revival style and fifty foot-high ceiling takes your breath away.  Ron and Kristin were hired to retouch the decorative paintings and plaster on the ceiling. 

Standing near the entrance, Ron looks up and quietly explains some of the work they did.

"It’s a blue green and gold, the paints on this.  You will notice that they are dead flat there.  They’re actually casings which is milk-based paint.  And you think that milk-based paint does not sound like it's very strong, but it is.  Protein paints are incredibly tough because it’s kind of like, if you think about having to clean an egg off of a plate.  How tough that is.  It’s because the protein in the egg is bonded to things tightly at the molecular level so it’s a nice paint and its dead flat so when we were redoing the decorations, we also used paints that were very similar to the kinds of paint that they originally used.  So everything would blend in."

It took Ron and Kristin three months to complete the law library project.  They used rolling towers that measured 16 feet by 16 feet to help them reach the ceiling.  Each of those towers weighed five thousand pounds, and they say it was not an easy task to complete.  Yet, some people who walked by them during the renovation didn’t realize just how talented these conservators, who both have masters, are.  Kristin explains.

"We had a father walk through the law library with his kids and he pointed out, he pointed at us and told his kids, 'That’s why you go to school, so you don’t have to end up like them.'  Thinking that what we’re doing is unimportant or doesn’t have any effect on them."

So, next time you see an amazing building in Washtenaw County that makes your jaw drop, think of the Hidden in Plain Sight crew from Building Arts & Conservation.

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu