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Wednesday, May 26,2010

Transom zaps redux

Ottawa Plant doors restored to 1939 pizzazz, and the mystery of their maker may be solved

by Lawrence Cosentino

Lorenzo Ghiberti’s 15th-century bronze doors at the Baptistery of Florence have God, Noah, Adam and Eve going for them, but even the fabled “Gates of Paradise” don’t have transom zaps.


Brass bolts of electricity converge on your head as you walk under the transom — a support beam above a door or window — over the north entrance to the Ottawa Power Station. Each door has an elegant stainless steel silhouette of the power plant’s ziggurat design, studded with dozens of bright brass bosses.


Even now, taken to pieces in restorer Ron Koenig’s workshop in Niles, the doors leap off the worktables.


Koenig started as a restorer in the 1990s, working on the Michigan Capitol, and most recently restored the football-field-sized ceiling of University of Michigan Law Library.


Koenig is shy by nature, but the restoration job of a lifetime has really flipped his switch.


“I’ve never seen anything like this, particularly on what amounts to a public building,” Koenig said. “It’s astounding. They make such a powerful statement.”


Richard Renaud wrote the restoration specifications for the doors. “These are the most fancy metal doors I’ve worked on yet,” Renaud said. “The mixture of metals is quite strange. These are one-of-a-kind.”


Renaud works for Quinn Evans, the architectural firm that worked out the preservation detailing for the Ottawa Power Plant’s entire envelope, including the doors.


“We see a lot of custom doors, but nothing that had the style and grace of these doors,” Renaud said.


Quinn Evans has restored the Old Executive Office Building in Washington, the Michigan Capitol, Hill Auditorium and several buildings at Cranbrook.


Since September 2009, Koenig and his team have been cleaning, buffing and replating six “fancy” doors in all: matched pairs of inner and outer lobby doors, a storage room door between the pairs, and another single door from the lobby to the main plant.


The restorer’s eternal headache — what to fix and what to leave alone — was a migraine here. Koenig had little to go on. Old black and white photos don’t show a lot of contrast and the architectural drawings are not only sketchy, but wrong: The brass elements are marked “bronze.”


Koenig was hesitant to muck with the patina, but grunge wasn’t big in 1939.


“The Art Deco period is all about contrasts, those crisp and sharp variations in plane, tone and shape,” Koenig said.


Koenig consulted Malcolm Collum, chief conservator at the Smithsonian Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse Clockwise from top left: Christman historic coordinator Jon Brechtelsbauer with restored doors; how the doors looked in a 1939 BWL brochure; and how the doors looked right before restoration National Air and Space Museum.


Brass is an alloy of zinc and copper. The doors spent decades on an industrial site, a high acid environment. Collum and Koenig concluded that the zinc had “gone out of the system,” leaving mainly copper.


“We needed to pull back,” Koenig said. “We needed to polish them and reestablish the patina.”


The restoration team decided to polish the brass, copper plate it and then oxidize the plating to tone down the brightness.


Often, the work was tedious but sensitive, like assembly line surgery. The innumerable brass bosses had to be polished, but not so hard as to grind away the fine grooves that make them shimmer. One boss was missing and will be replaced.


The new one will have subtle differences visible only from 10 inches away, so the restoration “story” is clear.


Strewn about Koenig’s workshop are bags of smaller parts, from screws to hinges to the pneumatic closers (plated and polished to a blinding brass). Every part is labeled so it can be put in the exact same place.


The work was painstaking, but Koenig said it was unavoidable.


“If somebody called you and said the Mona Lisa was coming to Lansing, you’d buy tickets,” Koenig said. “If they said the greatest copy ever of the Mona Lisa was coming, you’d say, ‘eh.’”


Koenig’s five-man team will put the doors back together this month. In August, he’ll work on site to restore the door frames, along with an Art Deco staircase and light fixture inside the power plant’s old lobby. The vestibule between the sets of doors is sheathed in Vitrolite, a heavy, tinted glass used from the 1920s to the 1940s. Koenig will polish that, too. At the end of August, the doors will be crated, trucked to Lansing and reinstalled.


One question remains. Neither the Lansing Board of Water nor Quinn Evans knows
who built the doors in the first place. Koenig’s team found no maker’s
mark, most of the architectural drawings are missing and the ones that
survive didn’t help.


But
there is a clue. When Koenig’s team took the doors apart, they found a
Nov. 29, 1938, edition of the Allentown, Pa., Morning Call. The
yellowing copy of “Lehigh Valley’s Greatest Newspaper” must have been a
calling card left for posterity by the builders.


Carol
Herrity, librarian of the Lehigh County Historical Society, said only
one Allentown company could have built the doors: L.S. Grammes &
Sons, which went out of existence in the 1960s.


Grammes
& Sons turned out a variety of Art Deco metalwork, including
plates, cigarette cases, candy dishes, and all the AAA safety patrol
badges in the United States, according to Colin Andres of Allentown.
Andres’s father, mother, uncle and aunt all worked at L.S. Grammes.
“They did a lot of fancy metal work,” Andres said. In the 1950s, the
company had at least one Michigan connection: interior and exterior
metalwork for Corvettes and Thunderbirds.


But
could they turn out six monumental 350-pound doors? As a 9-year-old,
Andres visited the shop with his dad on Saturdays. “They did have heavy
equipment to move large things throughout the floors, and the elevator shafts were quite big,” he said. “I’m pretty sure it’s the only place where those doors could have been made.”


A
Google search of the company brings up a stack of employee obituaries.
As Koenig’s work winds down, he confessed to feeling a connection to
the doors’ anonymous builders. “You don’t get too many chances in your
life at immortality,” he said.

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