Stony facelift

2009-07-02 00:00

THE restoration of St Mary’s Church on the corner of Albert Luthuli Road and Burger Street is currently under way. Playing a key role is Alcockspruit Exploration, sub­contractors to Siya Zama, the main contractor for the restoration. To date Alcockspruit has replaced over 1 000 natural stones, shale as well as sandstone.

The stone comes from its quarry at ­Alcockspruit near Dannhauser in northern KwaZulu-Natal. The quarry is in a geological area known as the Vryheid Formation that largely consists of sandstone, mudstone, shale, siltstone, and coal seams. The sandstone from Alcockspruit is noted for its durability and strength.

Opened by the Alcock family in the 19th century the quarry was one of the first sandstone quarries in the country and its stone has been used in the construction of many historic buildings, including the Union buildings in Pretoria and, closer to home, the ­ill-fated Colonial Building in Church Street as well as most railway bridges, banks, churches and town halls around the ­country.

“A million cubic metres of stone have been removed from the quarry since the 1800s, creating a 22-metre-high cliff face,” says Grant Bartholomew, co-director of Alcock­spruit along with business partner Boude­wijn Lampe.

“Sandstone from the quarry is hard, ­closer to granite,” says Bartholomew. But that doesn’t mean all sandstone is the same. In 1910, the advent of the Union of South ­Africa and its five new provinces provoked a building boom, and 48 sandstone quarries opened around the country to meet the ­demand for material. “But much of the sandstone from these quarries was of ­inferior quality,” says Bartholomew. “Within six years of construction it became soft. It ­ruined the industry.”

“When we decided to start a stone quarrying business we looked at what stone has lasted,” says Bartholomew, talking about his and Lampe’s decision to buy and reopen the Alcockspruit quarry 10 years ago. “This quarry had the best stone, and in strength and durability it is among the best in the world. The firm Crankshaw, well known for making tombstones, used sandstone from this quarry for years before moving to ­granite.”

Initially, according to Lampe, the main ­demand for their sandstone was for the ­construction of new buildings. “We supplied stone and advised on its use. We started ­doing restoration work two years ago.”

There has been little restoration undertaken on 19th-century buildings since the the early nineties, nor has there been much ongoing maintenance. Time passed, people retired and old skills were lost. “We had to become those people,” says Lampe. ­“Because of our involvement with ­sandstone, we were poised to make that ­adjustment.”

To further their knowledge, Bartholomew visited Australia where there are similar ­colonial-style buildings, while Dutch-born Lampe has long been involved in researching buildings and building methods in ­Europe.

Lampe emphasises that there is a difference between restoration and renovation. ­“Renovation is about getting a building functional again. Restoration is about ­returning it, as near as possible, to its ­original condition. That involves knowing how it was built 150 years ago — how it was done, the methodology — and then restoring it in the same fashion but using ­current technologies involving electricity, petrol and modern tools. Chemicals are only used as a last resort.”

Lampe is particularly pleased with their work on an arch over the doorway to the vestry but confesses he was even more ­impressed with its original construction. “We were astonished at what people could do 150 years ago,” he says. “When you bring modern technology to bear on something like this you humbly realise that they were smarter than us.”

For the arch — or indeed any of the stones that have to be replaced — the right stone is needed from the quarry. “You have to find a stone that would match what is here,” says Lampe, comparing it to selecting a piece of wood for the bow of a ship. “It has to have a similar shape — the same with this arch, you find the stone with the right shape.” It then has to be cut from the rock face.

Bartholomew adds: “For any stone you probably remove 10 times the amount to get the one you want. For a complex shape like the arch it’s probably 50 times the amount.”

Right: New sandstone blocks recently put in place during the restoration on St Mary’s Church on the corner of Albert Luthuli Road and Burger Street.

St Mary’s presented a number of challenges to Bartholomew and Lampe. Lack of maintenance over the years has seen the building deteriorate, plus there was damage caused by repairs — mainly plaster over sandstone — 15 years ago. Also the stonework had badly deteriorated since an ­assessment done four years ago. As a result, four times the amount of sandstone and shale has had to be used since the estimate made at that time.

Like the rest of us St Mary’s has had to weather the same environmental challenges. When it was built in 1860 the only pollution it encountered was probably the passing of wind by a carthorse. Now it has to deal with exhaust fumes, acid rain, and the continuous vibration of heavy traffic. “What will happen in the next 50 years will make what happened to St Mary’s in its first 150 years look like a picnic,” says Lampe

In Lampe’s view, the secret to keeping old buildings in good repair is ongoing maintenance. “If you keep them maintained then you enjoy the benefit of low maintenance costs. It’s like a well-maintained car — there are fewer driving costs. Preventative maintenance is the key, just as you service your car. You wouldn’t miss your luxury car’s 10 000-kilometre service, it’s the same with a ­building like this.”

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