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Wednesday, March 30,2011

Transom zaps redux

Lightning strikes twice at the doors of the Ottawa Power Station

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, or overhead window, at the south 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 when they were taken to pieces in restorer Ron Koenig’s workshop in Niles, Mi., last year, the doors leapt off the worktables.


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


He is shy by nature, but the restoration job of a lifetime 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 works for Quinn Evans, the architectural firm that worked out the preservation detailing for the Ottawa Power Plant’s entire envelope, including the doors. Renaud wrote the restoration specifications for the doors. “These are the most fancy metal doors I’ve worked on yet,” Renaud said.


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


“The mixture of metals is quite strange,” Renaud said of the Ottawa doors. “These are one of a kind. We see a lot of custom doors, but nothing that had the style and grace of these doors.”


Beginning in September 2009, Koenig and his team cleaned, buffed and replated 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 at its worst. 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 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, copperplate it and then oxidize the plating to tone down the brightness.


Often, the work was tedious and 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 had to be replaced. The new one has subtle differences visible only from 10 inches away, so the restoration “story” is clear to keen observers.


The work was painstaking, but rewarding. After all, these doors were originals.


“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 put the doors back together in late summer 2010. Then they spiffed up 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 polished that up too. In August 2010, the doors were crated, trucked to Lansing and reinstalled.


One question remained. Neither the Lansing Board of Water & Light nor Quinn Evans knew 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 was 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 would know. His 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 brought up a stack of employee obituaries. As Koenig’s work wound 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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