Penn State

‘Preserving a cultural landmark.’ Here’s how Old Main retains history during restoration

Why is scaffolding covering a Penn State landmark?

The bell tower of Penn State's Old Main is covered as restoration work continues.
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The bell tower of Penn State's Old Main is covered as restoration work continues.

A Penn State landmark is undergoing restoration work to preserve its historical construction.

The Old Main bell tower and light wells will be restored and a fall protection systems will be installed, said Lisa Berkey, senior director of design and construction at Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant.

Chicago-based architectural, engineering and material sciences firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. is at the helm of the $3.5 million restoration project. WJE is known for its work on high-profile buildings such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Sept. 11 Memorial, Alcatraz and the Washington Monument.

“The project team was committed to preserving a cultural landmark, while educating the Penn State community, without significantly impacting the natural environment of Old Main,” WJE project manager Paul Parfitt said.

In 2008, Penn State prepared a master plan to identify architectural and buildings system issues, and also to develop a phased plan to address those issues while preserving the historic structure of Old Main, Berkey said.

“This multiphase project is focused on maintenance of the structure needed to maintain and preserve any building that experiences daily use and wear and tear from weather,” she said.

Now in Phase II of the master plan, Phase I, Berkey said, was the East Stair rehabilitation. The university hasn’t yet established the total number of phases or timing of future phases, but will develop them as required, she said.

The full restoration includes stone and brick masonry repointing, limited stone replacement, new roofing membrane above the building’s portico and landings, waterproofing and the addition of low-profile roof fall protection systems, Berkey said.

WJE considered six key elements “to ensure a successful project outcome,” Parfitt said — the “notable” history of Old Main, teamwork, expertise, innovation, education and safety.

Penn State’s historic Old Main is undergoing work to restore the bell tower. On Friday, July 5, 2019, the tower is covered in scaffolding. Abby Drey

The firm completed a comprehensive exterior survey of Old Main, in order to understand the building’s performance over the years and what conditions may make repair or maintenance necessary, he said. Then, they took the results of the survey and developed a custom repair and restoration strategy to address the conditions identified, he said.

WJE and specialty restoration contractor Masonry Preservation Services, Inc. are in the beginning steps of the construction process, which includes installing scaffolding around the Old Main bell tower to gain access to the “elements” the companies will be working on, Parfitt said.

As with many restoration projects, “there are always challenges,” Parfitt said.

“Some (challenges) specifically during the early inspection and preconstruction phases involved simply gaining access to the exterior of the tower to perform our surveys,” he said. “Due to the geometry of the building, as well as site limitations, you can’t just access the tower with typical construction lifts.”

To deal with those obstacles, WJE employed several special techniques. The firm used a drone to fly around the tower and record high definition video and still images, its “difficult access team,” which scaled up the tower using industrial rope access techniques to conduct a hands-on survey and a 220-foot truck-mounted boom lift to access a limited area of the dome at the north side of the tower to create an inspection opening and gather samples for material testing, Parfitt said.

Though WJE has done extensive preservation and restoration work, Parfitt said the ever-changing field means “the craft is never ‘perfected.’ ”

“As with many existing buildings, especially historic ones, one thing you can be sure of is that you will inevitably come across a condition you didn’t expect to find,” he said. “We learn something new almost every day. This keeps us on our feet and excited about what we could find next.”

Overall, though, history buffs, tourists and those who come to Penn State’s campus every day won’t notice much of a difference in the Old Main tower, Parfitt said.

“As with most restoration projects of this type that are intended to preserve, rather than replace, the historic building fabric, the visual impact of our work is expected to be minimal, with the possible exception of some stone repairs at the dome and cleaning that may help to remove decades of soiling,” he said.

The tower restoration work is expected to wrap up sometime during the fall 2019 semester, weather depending.

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