Brick by Brick

A160-year-old landmark building at Roanoke College in Salem, VA, is enjoying a facelift, following the painstakingly careful renovation of an antebellum exterior wall that was bowing under its own weight.

A private, coeducational, four-year liberal arts college originally founded in 1842 as a boys’ preparatory school, Roanoke College was one of the few Southern colleges that remained open throughout the Civil War. This history is well represented on Roanoke’s campus. Six of the College’s buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. Roanoke’s four oldest buildings, listed as the Main Campus Complex, are the Administration building, constructed in 1847; Miller Hall, constructed in 1857; Trout Hall, constructed in 1867; and Bittle Hall, constructed in 1879. Francis T. West Hall (the former Roanoke County courthouse, now named after a Roanoke alumnus), constructed in 1910; and Monterey House, constructed in 1853; are also listed.

A Careful Restoration
The Administration building was built in 1847 as a square, two-story box. Even after several renovations and additions through the decades since its construction, it has maintained its stately, signature presence as the oldest building on the College’s campus.

The most recent renovation — or better, restoration — of the building began in August 2011. The two-phase project includes replacement of the building’s deteriorating chimney and, probably the more substantial of the two phases, replacement of the building’s bulging west wall.

The west wall had been bowed — pushing out of vertical alignment about three or four inches — for some time. The slow bowing had been monitored on a regular basis. Efforts to reinforce it with steel rods in the 1980s worked well for many years, but recent examination by engineers showed additional movement.

Replacing the wall became imperative.

“It was getting close to the point of being critical,” says Randy Jones, chief executive officer of OWPR, Inc., a Blacksburg, VA-based architecture and engineering firm, which guided the renovation of the wall along with other campus projects for Roanoke College.

In early November, work crews, under the guidance of OWPR, started work to dismantle the old wall and build a new one.

The wall, fortunately, was not weight bearing. But because of its construction and the risk of damaging nearby Miller Hall, it couldn’t simply be knocked down. The wall, part of an addition to the original core of the building, was dismantled brick by historic brick in a painstakingly careful process. The wall was five courses of brick thick at the base, Jones reports, and graduated as the wall climbed higher.

Even taking it down by hand was tedious.

“You just don’t know, as you systematically remove it, if it’s going to stay,” 
Jones says.

Salvaging the Past

A giant wooden fascia was removed in one piece and will be replaced. Two windows from the wall, part of the original construction, were also saved and will be reused. “It’s the essential building on campus, so you want to keep it as original as possible,” Jones says.

The original bricks, made on-site, “were so deteriorated that you could crumble them with your hand,” says Jones. And further, it was discovered that the original wall was constructed of nothing but bricks — without frame, foundation, or other reinforcement — stacked upon dirt. The College saved as many bricks as possible — several thousand of them — though College officials aren’t yet sure what they’ll do with them.

They won’t be going back in the wall.

Everything Old Is New Again
The Salem-based Old Virginia Brick company manufactured new bricks, essentially re-creating the original brick. They so closely resemble the original that it’s tough to distinguish the old from the new.
Because the original brick wall sat directly on dirt, excavation was necessary to provide a concrete footing for the establishment of a new concrete masonry foundation wall. The new brick is anchored to the foundation wall with a product called “brick ties.”

The Administration Building, which remained open during the entire renovation, houses the offices of the president, the dean of the College, the registrar, the director of International Education, the director of General Education, and the executive director of Institutional Research. It is one of the dozen or so oldest buildings in the city of Salem.

The Administration Building project is not OWPR’s first for Roanoke College. The firm has provided architectural and engineering services for the College on a number of projects, including additions and renovations to Trout Hall, Miller Hall, Lucas Hall, CAR Residence Hall, Chesapeake Residence Hall, the Market Street Complex, the Kerr Stadium, the new tennis courts on Elizabeth Campus, and the new central stairway in front of Massengill Auditorium.

The Administration Building project, Jones says, “has been interesting — like peeking inside the history of the building.” 

Laura Snyder is an account executive for Dick Jones Communications with a decade of experience in writing on higher education topics.