Historical restoration Brick by brick

By By Bill Rautenstrauch The Observer July 04, 2012 01:50 pm

Friends of La Grande Main Street’s Liberty Theater Division had something to celebrate last week, as a mason known for his work on historical buildings did repairs on the walls and parapet of the historically significant theater building at 1010 Adams Avenue.

The theater division, an offshoot of the La Grande Main Street program, recently purchased the historic Liberty  with the goal of renovating it and making it into a center for the performing arts. The mason, Budd Landon of Kuna, Idaho, headed a crew this month that did repairs people can see as they walk by.  

Dale Mammen, the man leading the effort to restore the Liberty, said he is pleased with the attention Landon and his assistants showed to historical detail.

“Before he ever started, he made five trips to La Grande to examine the building. Getting the colors to match isn’t easy, and he put a lot of effort into it,” Mammen said.

The Liberty Theater opened as the Orpheum Theater in 1910, was renamed the Arcade in 1911 and became the Liberty in 1930. After the theater closed in 1959, the building was remodeled to accommodate retail businesses. The projection room, balcony, stage, some light fixtures and tiers for seats remain.

A couple of years ago, Mammen launched the the effort to bring the old show house back to life. His all-volunteer Liberty Theater Division, which bought the building with help from the City of La Grande’s Urban Renewal Agency, plans to pay for full restoration through grants, donations and support from the city.

Late last year, the State Historic Preservation Office approved the group’s grant application for $20,000 for brick and mortar work. Landon, who has worked on numerous historic buildings in the Pacific Northwest including the Pete French round barn near Burns in Harney County and the Morrow County Courthouse, was the first choice for the Liberty Theater.

Landon and a couple of helpers came to La Grande June 18 and worked through last Friday, armed with a brick-and-mortar restoration plan worked out by John Kvapil of DKA Architecture and Design. They repointed brick along the top and bottom of the building, removing old mortar and replacing it with new. They also patched rough spots and holes. Where brick needed to be replaced, they used bricks from a pile of originals found on the roof.

Landon’s crew spent considerable time renovating the building’s parapet. The work involved long hours of sanding, sealing and coating.

“With restoration work, we generally start at the top and work down,” Landon said. “Most of the work here was on the parapet walls and the coping along the top. We covered that with a material that will preserve it for another hundred years.”

Since taking over the theater building, Mammen’s group has filled two retail spaces on the ground floor, and constructed and opened the Stage Door Theater, a 50-seat entertainment venue at the back of the building.

Mammen said the Liberty Theater Division is currently planning some Stage Door Theater events in conjunction with the upcoming Crazy Days celebration in downtown La Grande. Meanwhile, the fundraising efforts continue.

“We’re in the process of developing local opportunities for financial support,” Mammen said.

Landon began his masonry career in 1963 and started his own company in 1971. He retired in 2009 and today works only on preservation projects. He said he enjoys the pace of his life these days.

“Before I retired I built several schools and jails, and I decided to just slow down and do restoration work. This is more rewarding for me,” he said.

He said technological advances in the construction industry have changed work methods and reduced the number of people who know brick and mortar work. 

Historic preservation is a niche that needs filling.

“Masonry is getting to be a lost art. There’s not too many young people taking it up,” Landon said.