Restoration Maintaining Historic Dignity & Charm

Jerome A Misiolek & Zachary A Rusu

Much has been written about the early industrial leaders and their impact on the area they called home. Their wealth, desire to entertain and enjoyment of world travels created the perfect storm of creativity resulting in the design and construction of some of this nation’s most lavish homes, rivaling the great homes throughout the world.

The Detroit area has had its share of industrial leaders. Many were involved in the manufacturing of automobiles. They built homes in Detroit, where they got their start, but later moved to escape both the heat and smog of the city. In the early 20th century, rural areas outside of the city offered opportunities to create country estates on vast parcels of land. This showed their counter – parts across the big pond that not only could they compete industrially, but also culturally.

Meadow Brook Hall was built by Matilda Dodge Wilson and her second husband Alfred Wilson, lumber broker. Matilda’s first marriage to auto motive pioneer John F Dodge left her with a considerable fortune when she became a widow in 1920 leaving her among the wealthiest women in the country, Matilda and Alfred combined their fortunes to build a home that was, and remains, among the finest in the country. Designed by Smith, Hinchman and Grylls, now SmithGroupJJR, between 1926 and 1929 in the Tudor-revival style, the 88,000 sf home originally cost $4 million, and that’s without furnishings. Given that a dollar in 1920 is equivalent to $11.50 today, the home built today would cost approximately $50 million.

With so many unique, competing visual features as one approaches the home, the distinctive chimneys hardly get noticed. Although, once pointed out, they are arguably among the more interesting features. It’s amazing considering the fact that of the 14 chimneys, no two are alike and most of the chimneys have multiple distinctly different flues.

Inspiration The history behind the chimneys might seem insignificant when compared to the home or its owners, but all one has to do is look at the variety of shapes to realize that they are more than just exhaust ports for the fireplaces. If the Wilsons wanted to make a statement with the chimneys of their home, they surely did so, designing 14 unique chimneys that complemented the home in a way that was rare, even in that era of opulence when it seemed anything could be achieved.

It was reported that inspiration for the chimney design, each with its own style, was developed during the Wilson’s travels through England where they observed several homes with multiple chimney styles. One such home was Hampton Court Palace in Surrey County. Built in 1514, the palace had a staggering 241 decorative brick chimneys compared to Meadow Brook Hall’s 14. Relatively speaking, it also had 1,080 rooms compared to 110 for Meadow Brook Hall.

Fire, a main source of heating for centuries, was, for many of those centuries, ventilated through openings in roofs and out windows. As a result, homes were smoky, sooty and drafty.

Chimneys and window glass were luxuries embraced by the affluent English during the 16th Century. Wealth was also displayed by the division of interior spaces into stories and rooms during this time, so multiple chimneys became symbols of wealth.

The 18th Century saw innovations in central heating and by the mid-20th century, fireplaces and chimneys were mostly decorative.

In retrospect, understanding that their architect, William Kapp of Smith, Hinchman and Grills joined the Wilsons on one of those trips abroad, their attention to detail should not come as a surprise. Anyone who takes their architect with them on the trip to con spire about their dream home wanted to accomplish something special.

Long time preservationists, the Wilsons donated their residence and its collections to what would become Oakland University. The Hall remains a historic home museum and hosts a myriad of special events and educational programming throughout the year. A National Historic Landmark, Meadow Brook Hall is a research, training and scholarship resource for students and faculty of the University.

Maintenance Since constructed some 85 years ago, the chimneys have undergone routine maintenance. This has extended the life of a component that traditionally requires repairs within a few decades of construction. With exposure to weather, producing extreme thermal expansion and contraction and increased freeze-thaw cycling, chimneys require an inordinate amount of maintenance to reduce or delay inevitable deterioration.

Restoration Requires Matching Replacement Overall, the chimneys have been maintained quite well, but because most maintenance projects were reacting to a deteriorated condition or fall hazard, they never allowed the lead time to procure the many special shape brick required to restore the chimneys. Hence, damaged brick were glued together and reset. When a replacement was needed, it was either the wrong color, incorrect shape or both.

This is most apparent on chimney 5, which was completely rebuilt with the use of incorrect brick and non-matching mortar. The brick was neither the correct color, texture, shape, nor size. This diminished the historic accuracy and appearance of the chimneys. For this type of work, the devil is in the detail. The success of this restoration effort hinged on the establishment of a correct mortar mix and use of brick with the correct color, texture and shape. This was paramount to obtain historical accuracy and thus, a successful restoration.

Assessment and Priority SmithGroupJJR’s Building Technology Studio has a history of masonry restoration projects from university campuses to the national historic landmark Guardian Building. Through the firm’s involvement on other projects at Meadow Brook Hall, the condition of the chimneys was brought to the owner’s attention. An initial report noted deterioration of the brick and the need for a hands on inspection. In late 2011 SmithGroupJJR was retained to assess the condition, prioritize repairs and lay out a plan to systematically restore the chimneys to their original condition.

The first phase was to methodically catalogue each flue, including all special brick shapes required to restore the chimneys. Some shapes were common from chimney to chimney (orientation and placement of the brick was changed to create different patterns), however, over forty distinctly different brick shapes in an array of orange, red and brown tones are included in these chimneys. The assessment revealed that all of the chimneys required some maintenance, however certain chimneys had more immediate needs.

The next phase was to estimate cost of repairs and understand the effort and schedule required to restore each of the chimneys. Once cost of repairs was estimated, it became apparent that the magnitude of the project was more than the University could afford at one time. As a result, repairs were prioritized.

Priority 1 – Immediate repairs required to eliminate potential fall hazards and repair openings that will cause collateral damage to surrounding masonry if not repaired.

Priority 2 – Repairs are suggested within one to two years to reduce potential for existing conditions to become Priority

Priority 3 – Repairs are suggested within five years or reassessment may be required.

Due to the poor condition of multiple chimneys’ categorized as Priority 1 and budget constraints, it was difficult to determine which would be restored as part of the first phase. Ultimately, accessibility led to the decision to bid four Priority 1 chimneys (1, 3, 10 & 13) with 10 others offered as alternates. When bids came in and cost to restore each flue materialized at $75,000/flue, the project was pared back to two chimneys (1 & 3), bringing it in line with the budget.

Procuring Historic Brick and Mortar Once chimneys were selected for repair, SmithGroupJJR, in conjunction with Pullman SST, began the process of selecting brick for removal from the chimney. Brick were strategically selected to be the basis for new brick procurement. Until this point, the brick were assessed and catalogued based on what was visible. It wasn’t until brick were physically removed that the true condition of the material as well as the depth beyond the existing mortar joints was determined. The difference between the estimate cost and bid cost was a result of the fact that it was only when brick were extracted for procurement that the true unique shape of each unit was discovered. Similarities between shapes first thought to be close enough to allow reuse of molds were not realized. In addition, the condition of the brick was worse than originally anticipated with spalled brick found behind the mortar joints.

Once brick shapes were extracted, they were sent to the Old Carolina Brick Company, one of few brick manufacturers capable of providing the artisan brick that matches the original. Hand molded brick created using historic brick manufacturing processes matched unique shapes and colors found on Meadow Brook Hall’s chimneys.

Of equal importance was identifying a mortar mix design with required physical proper ties that matched the rest of the Hall. Pullman SST carried out the rigorous process of blending lime, portland cement, sand and aggregates through an iterative process, making multiple samples until a satisfactory mix design was found with similar color, texture of the original mortar and physical properties for durability. Initial estimates demonstrated that restoring chimneys with special shape brick on a historic structure that remained open to the public was both challenging and costly. The restoration, however, proved invaluable for laying the ground work for future phases. A brick match based on aesthetics and physical properties, has been established. Brick shapes differ from chimney to chimney. Samples will be required to replicate each unique shape. Restoration of two chimneys provided quantifiable information on how many shapes are different and alike. This will prove invaluable when estimating the cost of future repairs.

Often the difficulty of a project leads to compromises that diminish the outcome for the sake of budget and schedule. It was evident that in the past, this process had resulted in the less than historically accurate restoration of a number of chimneys. With historic significance of the Hall of utmost importance, the owner recognized that mistakes made during past restoration efforts could not be repeated. SmithGroup JJR, as the original designer of the Hall, was retained because of their deep knowledge of the building and expertise in historic restoration to perform a study to assure procurement and use of proper materials and processes were utilized. This, paired with the work of accomplished masons, resulted in historically accurate restoration that will endure and be enjoyed for years to come. The results are magnificent. These chimneys are showcased during tours as examples of what can be achieved with skilled masons today!

This project proved to be a successful pilot program: two of the most deteriorated chimneys were restored with invaluable material and logistical information gained. This background information combined with understanding of the complex geometry and lead time for brick procurement will prove invaluable for those planning and executing prioritized restoration of remaining chimneys.

Jerome Misiolek, CDT, SMI, is a Principal at SmithGroupJJR. With a background in restoration, both as a contractor and as Director of Facade Restoration with a national restoration engineering firm, Misiolek’s more than 30 years of experience brings a valuable “hands on” perspective to SmithGroupJJR’s Building Technology Studio as a technical architectural consultant. He is active in several professional societies including the Michigan Masonry Advisory Board and ASTM D08. He received a Bachelor of Science in Construction Engineering from Lawrence Technological University and an Associate of Applied Science in Architecture from Henry Ford Community College. jerry.misiolek@smithgroupjjr.com 313.442.8182

Zachary Rusu, Building Technology Specialist is a certified Building Science Thermographer currently pursuing architectural registration. His project experience is specialized in the building enclosure including roof, windows, skylights, general wall cladding and waterproofing. Rusu has worked on a variety of projects ranging from civic, healthcare, workplace, residential and historic preservation. Project responsibilities include construction administration and field observation, investigation and analysis of existing conditions and preparation of construction documents for remediation and restoration. Rusu received both a Bachelor of Science and a Masters in Architecture from Lawrence Technological University. 313.442.8386 zach.rusu@smithgroupjjr.com

Live help