British invaders aim to restore, preserve, plaster and prosper

July 27, 1992|By Linda Lowe Morris | Linda Lowe Morris,Staff Writer

As Dixon Howe scuffs across the silent and almost vacant workshop in Fells Point, a cloud of fine white powder trails behind him.

Just weeks ago, this giant space of 10,000 square feet in the former Bagby Furniture building was packed wall-to-wall with giant pilasters, moldings, coffers and cornices made of white fibrous plaster.

Now the dust is nearly all that's left of two major projects that his company -- Hayles & Howe ornamental plasterers from Bristol, England -- has just completed.

The work itself was trucked by flatbed trailer to Washington and assembled: a complete restoration of the ornate plaster work in the Warner Theatre and a 200-foot-long re-creation of a beaux-arts coffered ceiling in the former Post Office, now an office-retail complex called Postal Square.

Some might be depressed to be in Mr. Howe's shoes -- he has just laid off 10 people in his American crew and shipped back to England five of the seven British craftsmen he brought with him two years ago.

But even though he has no definite jobs lined up for the future, Dixon Howe is hopeful. His only problem, as he sees it, is letting America know he's here.

"How do you let a large nation know that you exist? It's a Catch-22. But I think we just need to get our name known," he says.

In the 20 years since Dixon Howe and his partner, David Hayles, started the business after graduating from architecture school in Bristol, the firm has restored and preserved ornate plaster ceilings and walls in abbeys, manor houses, theaters, palaces and government buildings. The company, which employs about 40 people worldwide, has done work in England, Morocco, the Middle East and Australia.

The partners also are experts in scagliola, an imitation marble made of dyed plaster that was developed in Italy during the Renaissance and used in place of marble in many large institutional buildings built before 1900.

"It's one of those arts that's pretty much died out," Mr. Howe says. "Except for us, nobody's really seriously been involved in scagliola since 1920."

Mr. Howe and a group of his workers first came to the United States two years ago to restore the scagliola walls and columns in the New Jersey Senate chamber in the State House in Trenton.

"It has columns 8 feet in diameter at the bottom and about 11 feet tall. If those were made out of a solid piece of marble, it would have cost them about 50 or 100 times as much," he said.

When the company was asked to stay on and do the plaster work for the Warner Theatre and Postal Square, Mr. Howe chose to set up his workshop in Baltimore instead of Washington.

"It seemed like for the money we paid here, we would have had a shop in a war zone there," he said.

The Postal Square project involved molding more than 1,000 pieces of plaster for the walls and ceiling of the Post Office lobby. The ceiling is made up of 60 ornate plaster coffers, or panels, each 7 feet across and weighing about 500 pounds.

"During the 1960s," he said, "they virtually destroyed the ceiling in hanging new pipes and an air-conditioning plant. When that was all stripped out, the ceiling was in such a bad state that we had to completely remake the whole thing from scratch."

After having gone through the extensive paperwork necessary to work in this country and having trained a crew here, Mr. Howe is reluctant to leave. He hopes that when Postal Square and the Warner Theatre both open this fall and people see the quality of their work, more jobs will be forthcoming.

And Mr. Howe wants to be able to hire back his Baltimore work force.

"There seems to be a really big population of artists and craftsmen here," he says. "It's a good work pool for us to draw on. You can't just advertise for ornamental plasterers. You have start with creative people and train them. I'm not secretive about our craft. I'd like more people to learn it because it's been falling by the wayside since the First World War."

The people he hired are just as anxious to go back to work for Hayles & Howe.

"It was a real thrill to work for them," said Fells Point sculptor Mara Majorowicz. "I think they do just excellent work. I thought it was really nice that they did hire a lot of local people."

Deward Stepleton, a carpenter with a background in stage design, agreed. "These guys are incredibly good at what they do. I'd love to work with them again," he said.

For the moment, Mr. Howe has pared down the Baltimore operation until the next big job comes along. He's also thinking of bringing over molds from England so that he can turn the Fells Point workshop into a factory making ceiling roses and cornices for sale here.

"I'm really looking for openings and options," he says. "How many million-dollar projects do you get every day? You know, you don't get that many, do you?

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