• Hit The Bricks
    By Stefan Hard
     | December 02,2013
    Stefan Hard / Staff Photo

    Workers for Connor Contracting carry materials into College Hall recently for an emergency restoration project to bolster the structurally weakened upper floor exterior walls.

    You might have noticed recently that portions of College Hall, the towering brick architectural anchor of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, are wrapped in plastic with construction materials assembled around the building’s base.

    The iconic 1868 brick building that is part of National Register of Historic Places has been undergoing some emergency surgery up around what I would call its brow and forehead. The College Hall Restoration Project has been going full speed for about two months and is likely within two to three weeks from completion, according to school officials.

    A few months ago, a chunk of College Hall’s wooden exterior molding fell to the ground below, prompting an investigation and alerting school officials to the fact that there was advanced deterioration of the building’s upper structure. Not only was wood rotting, but an external and internal examination of the building’s upper structural brick walls — in many places as much as six bricks thick — were bulging in places and nearing partial collapse.

    According to VCFA Senior Vice President Bill Kaplan, it was clear the damage was accelerating rapidly and the building might not make it through the winter without having to be condemned.

    The college quickly brought in outside expertise in the form of architects, engineers, and historic preservationists to evaluate the situation, and it was determined an immediate fix should be effected. Connor Contracting, of Berlin, was hired for the wood repairs, and Ziter Masonry out of South Barre was tapped for repairing the brickwork.

    To date, the restoration project has cost the college about a half-million dollars, and it’s hoped to top out at $750,000 or less.But even that is a welcome figure given the original estimate of $1.5million. Kaplan said the college may retroactively seek grants to help pay for the work, but the need for repairs was so urgent there wasn’t time to go through the grant application process before starting work.

    College Hall is a rare architectural gem, a fact that has complicated the work to repair damage done by more than a century of freeze-thaw cycles that are a part of our Vermont climate. In one challenge, the brick walls of the imposing building are made of non-standard sized bricks, and when original bricks couldn’t be recycled, new bricks had to be custom made to fit. A second complication involvedthe gracefully curved wood trim over the building’s huge windows that was beyond repair: it had to be replaced by new trim made from Spanish cedar and carved using custom knives that had to be fabricated because they are no longer in general use.

    It hasn’t been an easy work environment on the jobsite, either, as winter has arrived. Scaffolding has had to be enveloped in plastic and hot air blown in to keep workers’ fingers from freezing, not to mention the special elastic mortar being used to cement bricks in place. In a piece of luck, a temporary HVAC system employed this summer to help augment the building’s inadequate air conditioning system was able to be reversed to pump the heat needed to keep the workers and mortar warm.

    To speed work, improve the building’s survivability, and maintain its historic integrity, repairs have at times been creative in ways that some may never notice. One example in a third floor office were the vertical wooden columns running from floor to ceiling that were tied together with shelving to look like built-in shelving.

    VCFA President Tom Greene said the project was in keeping with his original vision and determination to maintain the historic and aesthetic integrity of the campus on the hill.

    “This project was approved with a sense of stewardship toward a grand old building,”agreed Kaplan.

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