Stonemasons carving out a place in history
With every hammer tap on her chisel, stonemason Tina Hart is bringing our city’s history back to life.
The work restoring Calgary’s Historic City Hall — the only surviving city hall from its time period in Western Canada — is preserving this important heritage building for future generations.
And just as the sandstone exterior was originally carved by hand in 1911, Hart is thrilled to be playing the same role today restoring it to its former glory as a prominent feature of Calgary’s downtown.
“It’s a rare opportunity to do work like this,” said Hart, who has used her stonemason expertise on historic buildings across North America. “I think I’m the lucky one because the City of Calgary recognized this is worth saving and that I get a chance to work on it. It’s a community that’s come together to do this. This is my passion.”
One of the most defining features of the building is its sandstone exterior. When Historic City Hall was built, at least 19 quarries operated in and around Calgary’s current city limits at a time when Calgary was known as the sandstone city.
Over the years, the sandstone blocks have deteriorated which led The City to undertake a rehabilitation of Historic City Hall.
Historic City Hall is distinguished by its decorative features and the stone carving work is a critical part of the character and identity of the building.
The specialized restoration work is painstaking, but Hart wouldn’t have it any other way. Hart and two other stonemasons working on Historic City Hall are certified stone carvers who primarily carve the stones by hand using special tools, taking special care to ensure the carvings replicate the original designs. The pieces range in size from five kilograms to nearly 300 kilograms.
“I love watching dust come off the chisel. The quality of the stone is just dreamy,” said Hart. “One of the biggest challenges is working out the imperfections; working around them, concealing them. It’s our job to save the stone.”
Hart knows this is a huge responsibility. The stonemason’s job is all about measurement and precision.
“It’s all architectural cut stone. It’s different from sculpture. Sculpture is very creative and if you make an oops you can just improvise. That doesn’t work here. Everything is measuring, everything is calculated. Everything has a purpose. The carving is nothing sitting on the pallet. That building is what makes the carving look good,” she says.
It’s important for the masons to have a strong understanding of the shape and form trying to be achieved. As the sandstone is sourced from three different quarries and are slightly different in texture, the masons need to first determine how the stones respond before beginning their carving work. Some of the detail on the stone requires a piqued finish that requires a fine point chisel, whereas some detail requires more of a smooth finish.
“Every time you start a piece if you’re not a little bit nervous, you shouldn’t be doing it,” said Hart. “You tell yourself don’t mess it up and that’s how I know I’m passionate about it, how I know this is what I love to do. I’m nervous, there’s a responsibility not only to the carver who made the original piece but the fact that I need to try to improve on parts the Calgary climate did to the original carving so it will last longer. I want them to be perfect and it can be nerve-wracking.”
Restoring the building to its original appearance is a key goal of the rehabilitation. As with any heritage project, the goal is to maintain as much of the original building as possible, and only replace and repair materials where necessary.
Masonry and heritage conservation experts were recently on site to evaluate the masonry and carving work performed to date to ensure it matches the appearance of the original stones and meets the guidelines for heritage building restorations.
In addition to focusing on the design detail of the stones, the project team also looks at how to integrate new features such as gutters or heating cables into the overall design to ensure the sandstones can function optimally over the long term through considerations such as water management on the sandstone, which is highly porous.
Heritage buildings each have a different expression of art which is reflected through the craftsmanship on the building itself and differs from today, where art is more often displayed as a separate structure.
The rehabilitation of Historic City Hall is expected to wrap up in summer 2020. For more information, visit Calgary.ca/historiccityhall.