Local 82: bringing beauty to the courtrooms

The Oregon Supreme Court building has much intricate plasterwork, including moldings and other decorative trim. Some of those are being rebuilt as part of the renovation.

By COLIN STAUB

As part of a wider renovation project, the Oregon Supreme Court building is rebuilding its highly artful and intricate castings by union plasterers.

Located one block from the Capitol Building in Salem, the Supreme Court Building has been undergoing major interior renovations for over two years to preserve its historic structure and improve safety and efficiency going forward.

Harver Co. owner Art Cortez has one of the job’s secret ingredients: horsehair. Taken from a horse’s mane and tail, it adds structural strength when mixed with plaster.

Workers represented by Plasterers Local 82 have been busy preserving the historic character of the 108-year-old building. The building contains many plaster decorations and employees of union plaster specialist Harver Co. install castings that are nearly identical to the original work.

Art Cortez, owner and president of Harver Co., says rebuilding the ornaments is a highly skilled operation.

“They’re hand-made, cast, and they’ve always been installed by one person,” Cortez said of the building’s plaster pieces. “You are more of an artist than a craftsman.”

To fabricate the new components, plasterers removed portions of the existing plaster, took them to a warehouse Harver had rented near the construction site, and made molds from the old pieces, said Richard Almodovar, plaster inspector on the Supreme Court building order. .

Making the mold involves placing the old part in a fiberglass box and pouring urethane around it to produce a room temperature vulcanizing mold (RTV).

Manufacturing the new pieces took about four months, Almodovar said. The finished pieces were returned to the Supreme Court building, where plasterers are currently working on the installation.

When the plasterers are finished with the renovation, Cortez expects the replaced cornices to be there for at least another 100 years.

Harver’s plasterers will continue their work in the Supreme Court building until the summer. The renovation will be led by main contractor Hoffman Construction, with design work by Hennebery Eddy Architects. The building is owned by the Oregon Judicial Department.

Key to retention: skill

The plasterers’ skills were once common in the construction industry, but the industry has shrunk since drywall became the norm in construction. However, their work remains invaluable, especially in restoring historic structures.

A plaster rosette.

Plasterers Local 82 business manager Kent Sickles says the union has made a concerted effort to connect with historical societies across Oregon. He wants to communicate that this industry exists, that there are local workers with the skills to renovate the intricate details in historic buildings. Otherwise, the historic character within the buildings will almost certainly be lost.

Cortez pointed to cornices high on the walls in the Supreme Court building as prime examples.

“Normally, [contractors would] just take these off and get rid of them because they don’t know how to put them back,” he said.

“Unless you have a company like this that can do it, it’s irreplaceable,” Sickles added.

Although the plasterers get steady work, few of their projects involve replicating the intricate decorations in the Supreme Court building. Sickles said he hasn’t seen anything like it since plasterers worked on a major renovation of Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in the 1980s.

More typical tasks include restoring original plaster and projects, when old architecture is matched with new construction. Plasterers also take on a lot of fire-resistant work.

Cortez sees an opportunity for more of the intricate plastering of historic Oregon home restorations.

“They have all these trim pieces in them on a much smaller scale, but nobody knows how to fix them, so they rip them off and put drywall back on,” Cortez said. Often this is simply because they don’t know who to call to properly restore the decoration.

Local 82 rankings on the rise

Local 82 also wants to spread the word about the plastering industry to bring in new workers. It was once primarily a trade passed down from generation to generation, but today most workers enter plastering through apprenticeship programs. The union relies on word of mouth, work visits and online outreach to educate potential employees about the industry.

The membership of Stukadoors Lokaal 82 has fluctuated strongly in recent years. From the 1970s to the early 2000s, it had between 140 and 160 members, Sickles said. It dropped significantly during the recession, reaching 63 just five years ago.

Now it has increased back to 120 members. Sickles credits a revival in the economy and the successful organization of the union to attract new workers. And there seems to be more room for growth in the industry: Cortez said Harver is looking for more plastering jobs, and the problem now is finding enough journeymen skilled in plastering.

“My guess is that it won’t stop,” he said of the industry’s expansion, “and that this is actually going to get bigger than most people can imagine.”

Union plasterers with Harver Co. build and install gypsum cornices as above.

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