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A Conversation with Brett Rugo, Founder of Rugo Stone

Interview by Erin Fierst

Hi Brett, so great to meet you. To start, what’s unique about Rugo Stone’s contributions to a historic preservation project like the Trinity Church Wall Street?

Our capabilities are unusually comprehensive. It’s hard to find another company with all the nimble skills it takes to respect and restore antiquity. We dismantle it, catalog it, reconfigure it, and then reinstall it. We have the expertise to install new work to match the existing expert craftsmanship that was done in the 1850s.

The Trinity Church Wall Street project involved the complete conservation and restoration of its Gothic Revival chancel. When you attend an Episcopalian mass, the chancel is where all the parishioners are focused, right? 

That’s correct. Everybody’s eyes are on this spot.

And Trinity Church Wall Street’s Gothic Revival style presents certain challenges in terms of historic preservation. 

It’s very complex architecture. It’s highly ornamented, it has a lot of moldings, a lot of geometry, a lot of really ornate elements that are far more complex than modern design. Gothic Revival was a return to an architectural style that occurred during this great period in European history when traveling bands of skilled masons would travel throughout France and England, primarily building Gothic Cathedrals.

Gothic architecture is extremely slender and tall, narrow at the base, and highly ornamental. It relies on some very interesting structural support systems, such as a series of columns with external buttresses, which sometimes are flying or sometimes fused. If you look at the outside of the church, you’ll see what looks like projected columns and arches. These external buttresses support the very high gothic domes and arch work in the interior. They’re all load-bearing and the buttresses allow the slender element to not kick, pancake, or fall down.

It was done without structural concrete, without structural steel. That’s why one of the big challenges for the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is reconstructing load-bearing gothic arches and timber roofs that rely on the buttresses. Notre Dame’s engineers were really ahead of their time in their ability to build slender stone elements that could self-support and resist wind loads and snow loads. In the case of Notre Dame, their work has survived for 800 years, but it’s a fragile architecture.

For example, in Washington when we had an earthquake ten or twelve years ago, the Washington National Cathedral, which is English Gothic — similar to Trinity’s French Gothic, but a little more squat—suffered many tens of millions of dollars in damage because the structural stone assembly was not as forgiving as, say, the National Shrine, where we’ve done all the preservation work. It’s interesting because the National Shrine’s Byzantine, Romanesque style — squatter, less ornate than the Gothic style’s vaults and arches — the same earthquake created $20k in damage, while the Gothic National Cathedral’s repairs will probably take twenty years of work.
To go back and strengthen the facade so that it doesn’t collapse later is very time-consuming work.

So, Gothic architecture itself, although it is elegant and works fine, doesn’t perform well in seismic events because the structural systems are not as flexible as other styles of architecture. It’s beautiful, slender, and self-supporting under normal conditions, but it’s also fragile. In the case of Trinity New York, it’s kind of amazing that this icon of American Gothic Revival architecture survived 9/11.
So the chance to work on the preservation, restoration, and modification of this important church was a great opportunity to display all of our skills from stone masonry, to stone carving, to mosaic conservation, to creating new mosaics to match existing ones made in the 1850s.

Trinity Church: Under construction on left, finished on right.
You spoke about how Gothic architecture’s verticality and fragility make it a challenging form structurally. How did that play out in this project?

We needed a steel frame inside the altar to support all the cantilevered stone, and also to take loads of the relocated altar down to the existing structural beams from the 1800s, because there was a crypt level below the chancel level. Our custom-designed steel frame inside the altar took some engineering. It certainly wasn’t the most complex thing we’ve ever done, but it is a hidden structural design element that we had to tackle.You mentioned the chancel level. For people who aren’t familiar, the chancel is the area that contains the altar and the reredos?

Yes. Chancel is the word the Episcopal faith uses to describe the overall space. In the Catholic faith, it would be called the sanctuary. The reredos is an ornamental screen that covers the wall at the back of an altar. We altered the lower section of the reredos where the altar had been fused to the rear walls. It was originally fused because in the old days ministers had their backs to the parishioners and would face the rear altar and give the service. So the altar was separated and moved forward to allow the minister to stand behind it and face the parishioners.Traditionally altars have been closed, four-sided boxes. To make the chancel ADA-compliant we also needed to reconfigure the altar so it functions like a countertop with wheelchair access underneath. Now it’s at the right height for people in wheelchairs to fit their knees under it.And reconfiguring the altar involved 3D scanning.

When it was still fused to the rear wall we used 3D scanning for the rear (now front) altar. It’s just a modern way of doing a field measurement. We get a spatial model in 3D of all the ornamentation — the dimension, their alignments. We still physically field-measured for overalls, but the scanned element allows you to have a digital picture of the 3D elements.Although we salvaged everything from the rear altar, it had no back, and it had no return columns to wrap around. So we had to design and manufacture new corner elements at the rear of the altar to complement what was in the front. We cleaned, restored, repaired, and refinished all of the existing altarpieces to make it what you see now. That involved months of meticulous cleaning and carving and stain removal on the stones. Same thing for the mosaics — they had to be removed and repaired. Old cast iron frames were taken out and replaced with a more modern approach to preserve them for a longer period of time.An interesting thing about conservation is that when you make a repair to something old, you’re responsible for ensuring that a future generation can dismantle it, to see and appreciate the original means of construction. So the anchors and materials that we chose were designed to preserve the old mosaic. To reinforce and future-proof the mosaics, we removed the old rotting cast iron and replaced it with aluminum honeycomb panels.

When we pulled the rear altar away from the old wall it left a big cavity in the wall where there was no matching Caen limestone for the rear wall. (Caen is the French town where the original limestone came from). We had to manufacture and design all the missing elements in the same spirit, with the same materials from the 1850s. That included the rear wall, as well as the creation of three ornate 24-karat gold glass mosaics to complement the original mosaics to its left and right.

It must have been hard to find Caen limestone to match the original.

For me, it wasn’t that difficult because identifying stones is my specialty. I’m often called in as a consultant to identify rare and historic materials. We also had some archival records from the mid-1800s that referenced the word Caen, so we weren’t completely in the dark.

Trinity Church: Restored historic mosaic on left, full Astor Altar on right.

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.

Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Erin Fierst

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