Restoring Trapp's facade painstaking, precise work

When the first residents move into the new Trapp + Holbrook condos sometime next year, they'll be stepping into a time warp that will take them back more than 100 years.

That's because of the painstaking restoration work that is going on on one level of the new structure's underground parkade to bring the terracotta facade of the historic Trapp building back to its original glory. Four tradesmen from Atlantis Rausch are uncrating almost 1,500 pieces of terracotta that were dismantled from the original building and packed away into storage so the gleaming new residential tower could rise above Columbia Street.

Using mallets, chisels and brushes, each piece is cleaned of its old mortar and debris that built up over the years. Stainless steel mesh is installed on the back of each piece to strengthen it and then the bricks that comprise the core are repointed.

Blocks that need to be repaired are patched and will be reglazed to as close to their original colour as possible. Those pieces that are damaged beyond repair are recreated with new moulds.

Fortunately those are few and far between, said Steven Rausch, who's supervising the restoration.

He traveled to Baltimore to find a supplier for a glaze that faithfully replicates the terracotta's original colour. The new pieces will be formed in the San Fransicso area by Gladding McBean, a ceramics company that's been manufacturing architectural terracotta for buildings up and down the West Coast since 1875.

The process of restoring the Trapp's facade actually began as the former department store was being demolished.

As wreckers swung their mallets and wielded their crowbars in the back, Rausch's team dismantled the terracotta facade piece-by-piece. Some of them weighed up to 1,000 pounds.

They photographed each block, catalogued it by number and graded it according to its condition. A blueprint shows where each numbered piece belongs.

The restoration work is expected to take months. As each piece is finished it's placed in its proper position on a series of tables that wind through the partially-finished parkade.

The reinstallation of the terracotta is expected to begin in September.

It's time consuming and costly work. But worth it said Robert Fung, president of The Salient Group that acquired the Trapp and Holbrook buildings in 2009 after previous developers were scared off at their attempts to rehabilitate and redevelop them because of the huge investment required to bring them up to modern standards.

"There is no other project in North America that is like this building," said Fung, whose company has tackled similar projects on historical buildings in Vancouver's Gastown area. "It adds a lot of value to somebody's home."

Rausch said his crew works hard to honour the skill and artistry of the terracotta's original crafters.

"You have pride in the old world craftsmanship," he said. "If you don't do this, then it dies."


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