Two years ago, architect Thomas Walter wouldn't have recognized the Chinese Community Church in Washington, D.C. as the building he designed in 1852. Layers of paint and stucco formed to look like stone covered its red brick façade. Most of its window hoods were missing and the bell tower had been replaced by a metallic dome.
Walter, who also designed the east and west wings and dome of the U.S. Capitol building and was a founder of the American Institute of Architects, originally designed the building as a Presbyterian church. Since then, the house of worship has served as the Jewish synagogue Ohev Sholom, the Corinthian Baptist Church, and now the capital's only Chinese church.
The new congregation hired Baltimore-based historic restoration contractor Worcester Eisenbrandt Inc. (WEI), to restore the exterior facade. WEI was the project's only onsite contractor, completing the brickwork, stone patching, carpentry, and copper work. Without the benefit of original architectural drawings, the firm relied on historic photographs for details. In less than a year, WEI brought the church closer to Walter's original design than it had been in decades.
Before anyone lifted a trowel, Erik Anderson, senior architectural conservator for WEI, investigated whether the restoration would be viable. His tests revealed the brick had been painted and then covered with a stuccoing process patented as Baltimore Formstone, in which a cement-based material is sculpted over metal reinforcement to resemble stone.
“We really lucked out,” he says. “The reinforcement was attached with smooth shank roofing nails in the mortar. If the nails had been anchored into the brick with barbed shanks, it would have meant replacing a lot of brick.”
Fortunately, the paint acted as a form release layer that kept the stucco from sticking to the brick. Confident that the façade could be restored, Anderson recommended removing the Formstone, stripping the paint, and cutting out and repointing the brick.