From a conservationist’s perspective, was there anything interesting that you saw in the documentation?
There were some very interesting things. It’s believed that the raw material that was brought in from France was carved in New York by English and Irish immigrants. In those years, America had a much bigger industrial workforce, with skilled people to take on these types of projects. In the archival documents, we were able to see references to local craft companies that appeared to be English and Irish in origin, but the skilled craftsmen were located here in the United States.
Some of that work was intricate stone carving.
There was a lot of re-carving of broken elements that were missing from the original columns. For example, re-carving a missing flower and attaching it to the original stone. Highly ornate decorations are attraction points for parishioners to want to touch and hold. The stone becomes dry and fragile over the years, and details are broken off and lost.
There can’t be a lot of firms who can recreate such ornate and historic architectural details.
No, it’s a pretty small group. It’s unusual to find all these skills in one company, to create one coordinated effort. That’s very appealing to our clients because we can take responsibility for coordinating a sensitive and complex restoration project like this, with all its diverse elements.
How did your team manage to make these new elements match the existing ones from the 1800s?
In the case of natural stone, you make your best effort to locate material that looks like what it originally did, but similar to leather or wood, stone ages. It acquires a patina and it gets worn from people touching it, so matching existing stonework is always a challenge. In the case of the Trinity Church Wall Street glass mosaics, we identified all the original colors and had the special colors produced in Venice to match the existing ones. We were very meticulous about selecting the correct color red out of about 150 reds that were available.
We went through a sampling process with the designer to get approval for our recommendations, which they did in every case. So there’s a whole pile of research that goes into ensuring authenticity. These mosaics were quite interesting because in the center panel there are very, very small-scale cameos – relief carvings made by hand on oyster shells. Those were all intact and only required careful cleaning, but there was also a series of half-round and pyramid-shaped glass jewels in the original ornamentation that was missing. We reproduced them by hand in our shop, which was very tricky to do.
Another element that entailed masterful stonework was creating Trinity Church Wall Street’s floor with its striking checkerboard pattern.
The floor featured trowel-tight joints, which are like thirty-second joints. This is very unusual to see in stone masonry, but we wanted to ratchet up the tolerances to an even higher level to make the floors as crisp as possible, in keeping to the work that was done in the 1850s. In modern times, the joinery can be an eighth or even a quarter of an inch, allowing the mason to be less precise. But when you go to a thirty-second, that’s pushing the absolute limit of stone as a medium. So whenever you tighten tolerances, you put a much higher burden on manufacturing and installation. And we performed very well on that.
Rugo also put some ornamental goldwork into this project.
Yes, there was 24-karat gold mosaic work, with the leaf already laminated to the glass tile in the factory in Italy. We also did some gilding. Our master stone carver also is experienced in the application of gilding, and he hand-applied the 24-karat gold to refinish the gold halo on the angel statue that’s part of the altar.
How about the Vermont statuary marble altar?
We worked extensively on this. After six months of intense research and communication, it became evident that there was no viable supplier for the raw material to match the church’s Vermont marble. Instead, we used an Italian statuary white marble to reproduce the rear column capitals. The column shaft itself is an orange-colored material — a rare, rare material that came from Portugal — and I was able to produce two new column sections to match the original color of this unique Portuguese marble.
There was also Olympian white and Rosso Levanto marble.
Olympian white is a material that’s still quarried in Danby, Vermont. We produced all that in our factory. The Rosso Levanto is a historic material from the early 1800s that’s quarried in Italy’s Liguria region. Through my connections in Italy, we were able to locate blocks from antique quarries that the design team liked and we produced that stone as well.
The Danby, Vermont quarry reminds me that you grew up around stone quarries there.
I am from Vermont, and I’m the grandson of an Italian carver who was passionate about his work. In a world where everybody was getting into computers, I knew from an early age that I wanted to work with my hands and shape stone. I never envisioned owning a business when I was younger, but I was one of those people who became obsessed with stone. I have a photographic memory for color, and I’m able to see things other people can’t and identify stone from subtle differences in grain and tone. It’s a passion and skill I’ve developed over the years, so, for me, any time there’s a challenging piece of stone to match, I take it as a personal challenge to get to the bottom of it.
Out of everything — the show-stopping limestone and mosaic and carving — is there one element that’s the most interesting to you?
Cleaning and repairing the altar was rewarding and challenging. Redesigning it to be supported by a steel frame, so it wouldn’t lay against masonry was a nice technical challenge. But conserving the mosaics and reproducing three panels of mosaic to go on the rear wall where the hole was exposed, from an art standpoint, it’s considered priceless and unique in the United States. In Rome, you can find hundreds of this kind of mosaic going back 2000 years, but in the United States, this level of high craft is rare. So working with panels produced by a great master from Venice in the 1800s was a unique, special opportunity.
Can you say more about the mosaic reproduction?
Our chief mosaic artist is Italian, and his life’s work has been hand-crafting all types of mosaic religious art as well as some modern art. He’s a very good researcher with a strong conservation background, so he was the perfect person and completely instrumental to the project.
In addition to the excellence of the craftsmanship, there’s also Rugo Stone’s collaboration with architects, conservationists, and other consultants on this historical preservation project.
What really elevates us is having master carvers with 35 years’ experience, master mosaic artists, draftsmen, masons, designers, coordinators, and managers all in one house. All these people kept the process moving and maintained client satisfaction and confidence over many months. Not one of our submittals was rejected — or any of our recommendations. It was a very collaborative, smooth process.
It’s a great honor to have been invited to work on a high-profile restoration project in New York City, at Ground Zero, and for the Trinity Church. And it was an honor to have been trusted with what I see as the most important aspect of the job: restoring the chancel to coordinate existing historically significant elements with new work that we made to match. We were able to create one unified, elegant design that adds twenty-first-century freshness and accessibility without compromising the original architectural intent.
So I’m very proud of our creative and technical accomplishments, but also of the fact that we’re all team players who can work in harmony toward a goal. For the Trinity Church Wall Street, I tapped into the different skills of many different people throughout the process, so we were able to give the best of Rugo Stone with all of our strengths.