Where getting plastered is an art form

JACQUES KELLY

June 16, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

A permanent white cloud seems to hang over the corner of Exeter and Fleet streets, where Little Italy meets the Inner Harbor East.

The cloud originates at Hayles & Howe, an English ornamental plaster firm that established its only American branch in Baltimore a little over two years ago.

The firm's designers and artisans restore and rebuild cracked and severely damaged ceilings and ornamental work often found in government buildings, churches, theaters and private residences. Its plasterers are now repairing the damage at Baltimore's Custom House (Gay and Lombard streets), where a 1940s remodeling ripped out the laborious handwork of 1905 artisans.

"Our biggest jobs are in Washington but we find Baltimore to be a nicer city, the place where we've established the business and our homes," says Graham Banks, the 41-year-old general manager of the Bristol, England, firm. Born in Portsmouth, he trained as a tool maker and later went into plaster restoration. He learned his craft in Bristol and helped restore the 18th century Assembly Rooms in Bath.

"If I had left England in 1850, this is the place I'd have gotten off the boat," he says, looking out a window and gesturing toward the Baltimore harbor.

Today, he lives just outside Ellicott City with his wife and daughter and travels to work sites in a 1954 Chevy pickup.

Ian Jenkins, 27, is the chief mold maker. He's from Bristol and lives here in the 500 block of S. Dallas St. He rides his Harley Davidson or Triumph motorcycle to work at Exeter Street's old Bagby Furniture building, where the plasterers have a large studio on the first floor.

Jenkins makes impressions of damaged cornices with rubbery silicone so that new parts can be cast as virtual duplicates of the old.

In his hands, raw powdery gypsum is transformed into white chalky roses, Greek goddesses and eagles.

"A lot of architects and interior designers don't know what ornamental plasterwork is. I'm amazed by the architects who want to put up plastic cornices," says Banks.

Several other plasterers -- like bakers, they dress sensibly in all-white -- work here casting the cornices, coffered ceiling components, medallions, panels, arches, niches, plaques, columns, capitals, brackets, and corbels that are offered in the firm's catalog. Oftentimes, customers will select items that are cast in England and shipped here. Others are made in Baltimore.

"Plasterers have almost died out in the U.S.," Banks says. "You don't have to be a genius to be a plasterer. But you do have to have the aptitude. I'd like to start holding training classes but I don't know how I'd get started."

Banks, Jenkins and Gary Francis, another member of the firm, first came to the United States to work on the New Jersey State Capitol building in Trenton. They realized there was probably a market here so they opened the Baltimore branch. Soon Hayles & Howe won two important Washington contracts, the restoration of the ceiling of the massive Postal Square building at Massachusetts Avenue and North Capitol Street (next door to Union Station) and the old Stanley Warner Theater, where the loge boxes had been torn down many years ago. Their work won them a coveted Washington Star award from the Builders' Congress there as well as the admiration of the office workers and theater patrons who now use those two building.

They are now working on Baltimore's Custom House, a classic example of a stately Teddy Roosevelt-era federal building that was insensitively remodeled.

The building's original atrium was covered with flooring to make extra space and plaster cornices ripped out to install a staircase. In the marble main floor, there's a brass medallion representing the points on a compass.

Banks can make almost anything in plaster, including moldings and cornices for private homes and mantels for fireplaces. One of his medallions costs about $250 installed.

"In England and Ireland, the fireplace is the central feature of the

room. Over here the television is," he says.

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