Originally Published: January 31, 2014 6:03 a.m.
PRESCOTT - One hundred and nine years of wind, rain and snow have taken their toll on the soft bricks that make up much of the exterior of downtown Prescott's historic Elks Opera House.
From the scaffolding that currently covers much of the building's exterior, architect Frank DeGrazia demonstrated the fragile condition, brushing lightly against one of the bricks and producing a sprinkling of debris.
"The face has been eroded away," DeGrazia said, pointing to a large area near the roof that shows major indentions and cracks.
Through the years, the joints between the bricks have deteriorated, creating a shelf for water and ice, DeGrazia said. Compounding the problem was a stucco-like coating that was sprayed on portions of the brick decades ago, allowing even more water to be trapped.
Although the upper portion of the building is especially worn, the erosion is not limited to any one section. DeGrazia said the entire exterior of the 1905 building showed extensive wear and tear.
It was with the goal of restoring and rejuvenating the aging brick that the new theater owners, the Elks Theater Performing Arts Center, have undertaken the first phase of a restoration project.
While the large bubble-like plastic covering that appeared this past week on the building's front and sides may have attracted the community's attention, the restoration work has actually been under way for months.
DeGrazia said the work on the back of the building began in about September. Already, workers have completed restoration work on the east and south sides, and much of the restored walls have been repainted with the two-tone gray color scheme that will eventually cover the entire building.
DeGrazia described the colors as cool gray and pewter gray. The darker pewter color will be used to highlight the architectural elements, such as the pilasters and corbels.
Soon after the Elks Theater Performing Art Center bought the theater from the City of Prescott in December 2012, DeGrazia went to the Prescott Preservation Commission with a two-phase plan for restoring the building.
The work will not extend to the theater's interior, which got a complete renovation in 2009 and 2010. Instead, it will focus on the exterior walls and the office space that previously was occupied by attorneys' offices and storefronts.
The exterior work requires a meticulous removal of the badly damaged bricks and plaster, and replacement with a better product.
To allow the work to continue throughout the winter, a shroud of plastic sheeting was installed this past week on the Elks' front and sides.
DeGrazia said the sheeting was necessary for a number of reasons, including safety. As the workers remove the damaged bricks and mortar, he said materials tend to fall to the ground, and the plastic sheeting serves as a barrier.
The sheeting also provides necessary warmth, with propane heaters helping to keep the plaster from freezing.
On Thursday, foreman Tom Kincaid was busy mixing up a batch of the special plaster needed for the project. He said the temperature between the plastic sheeting and the walls stays at about 40 to 50 degrees through the night.
The sheeting also covers the scaffolding and stairs that give the workers easy access to damaged sections of brick.
DeGrazia estimates the cost of the first phase of repairs on the building's exterior at about $1.9 million.
Even as that phase is progressing, DeGrazia is working on the design for the second phase, which will include a complete reworking of the interior of the storefronts and the second and third levels of the building.
Walking through the partially gutted area on Thursday, DeGrazia explained that the second-level space would be transformed into studios for dance, music, and recording.
Although many of the former office walls and ceilings will be removed, DeGrazia said workers would preserve original features, when possible - for instance, the original wood floors that exist underneath the multiple layers of carpet, tile and linoleum. The goal is to preserve and restore the original wood, he said.
Other features will need to be replaced, modernized, and brought up to ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards. DeGrazia said the project would include new heating and cooling, windows, plumbing, electrical, elevator, and fire sprinkler system.
On the third floor, the new owners plan a large open area that could be leased out for weddings or other gatherings. It will include a restored balcony and a new catering kitchen.
While DeGrazia was uncertain about the start and end date of the second phase, he said the first phase (exterior work) should be complete by late spring. "The scaffolding should be done by April or May," he said.
Meanwhile, the Elks Opera House continues to operate in the restored theater.
Theater Manager Colette Greenlee said Thursday that the construction has had little impact on the theater. The space is booked for most weekend days throughout the spring, she said.
"As far as the events going on in the theater, we're going strong," Greenlee said.
DeGrazia noted that the Elks Theater Performing Arts Center is a nonprofit organization that aims to preserve the theater for the community in perpetuity.
As a part of the 2012 purchase of the theater, the organization agreed to set up an endowment for the perpetual operation and maintenance of the theater.
Follow Cindy Barks on Twitter @Cindy_Barks