Restoring Freedom: A masonry building’s rebirth, brick by brick

Freedom Place Completion
All images courtesy Western Specialty Contractors

by Jason Holtman
Since October 2014, St. Louis’ Freedom Place (4011 Delmar Blvd.) has served as a ‘symbol’ of hope for those less fortunate. Constructed in 1928, the restored apartment building underwent major changes by the St. Louis Masonry branch of Western Specialty Contractors, in order to transform it back to its original glory.

Located three blocks from the John Cochran VA Medical Center, it represents Vecino Group’s first St. Louis project; the developer’s primary focus has been historic rehabilitations and affordable housing in southwestern Missouri. Recognizing the building’s potential, Vecino Group formed a partnership with the St. Patrick Center and the Department of Mental Health. It invested $12.7 million to renovate the five-story structure into supportive housing for veterans who, according to city officials, make up about 12 percent of the city’s homeless population.

The 68-furnished unit apartment building now provides onsite support, rental assistance, weekly support meetings, a gym, a children’s playroom, meeting rooms, and living areas. Last year, Vecino Group was selected for a 2015 Preserve Missouri Award in recognition of the project.

Western Specialty Contractors was contracted in late 2013 by general contractor Horace B. Deal Construction Inc. (HBD), to perform a complete façade restoration of the 3716-m2 (40,000-sf) structure. Abandoned for over a decade, a large portion of the building’s brick, terra cotta, and concrete foundation was ruined.

The scope of the work involved restoring the crumbling interior masonry walls. Broken windows throughout the building and missing copper downspouts had exposed the walls to the elements, causing major damage and instability. An initial survey of the interior revealed multiple failing walls—the result of deterioration in the clay tile backups.

Each damaged wall was field-measured, and the developer was provided a detailed schematic showing each rebuild area with brick and block needed to be installed. Twenty-four interior masonry walls were repaired throughout the building, and the backups were replaced with standard concrete masonry units (CMUs).

Before tuckpointing could begin on the brick, crews had to examine existing building joints, which were frequently different due to the building’s multiple repairs over the years.

Broken floors, which were unstable to walk or set materials on, provided a challenge on the project. The façade restoration crews managed to work around the demo team while it made floor repairs; they were required to stage equipment and load their CMUs in specified areas while the floor was being stabilized.

Since the project was located within the St. Louis City limits, Western was required to subcontract with woman and minority business enterprises (MBEs/WBEs) to participate on the project. An MBE masonry firm was hired to complete some of the brick and block infills at grade, along with a few of the full wall rebuilds.

Restoring the masonry/concrete façade
After the interior masonry work was complete, the next step was restoring the building’s masonry and concrete façade. A complete visual inspection and sounding of each masonry wall was completed to determine which bricks needed to be replaced. Thus, approximately 3000 broken and missing bricks on the building’s façade were restored with new or salvaged bricks from a local supplier that closely matched the originals.

Before tuckpointing could begin on the brick, existing building joints had to be examined. Different types of joints had been used during the building’s lifespan due to the need for multiple repairs. Therefore, it was difficult for the team to determine which joint profile was used when the structure was originally built. A concave profile for the tuck-pointing provided the best design for shedding water away from the masonry walls.

Mockup samples were created to give the general contractor and historical consultant a visual reference for selecting a mortar color and seeing how the joint profile would look. This process also helped give an idea of where in the building the mortar mockups should take place. Different colors were applied and reviewed in different lighting.

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