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A magazine from California State University, Chico -- On-line Edition  
Summer 2007
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Restoring the Rock

Four members of the summer 2011 Preservation Field School team—Steven Aguilar, Andrew Billingsley, Sofia Salazar, and Phil Petermann—taking the morning ferry to work on Alcatraz.
Photo by Beiron Andersson of Steven Auilar, Andrew Billingsley, Sofia Salazar, and Phil Petermann

Concrete industry management students will spend five years rehabilitating historic portions of Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz. While it was a notorious federal penitentiary, prisoners spent a lot of time and energy plotting a way to get off the island (36 people attempted escape; officially, none succeeded). Now, more than 5,000 people a day wait in line to get onto the island. It is a compelling destination because of its location, its architecture, and its history—part of which is being preserved by a team of California State University, Chico students.

In early July, Phil Petermann came to retrieve me from the dock in San Francisco. Petermann is the student public affairs director for the Concrete Industry Management (CIM) Preservation Field School at Alcatraz Island. The rest of the crew was already working at the island’s “Puppy Stairs,” the site of the summer 2011 concrete rehabilitation project. They were part of a five-year partnership with the National Park Service (NPS) and working on the island for 10 weeks, from June through August.

When we were seated on the ferry headed to the island, Petermann began to tell me how satisfying it was to be part of the field school. He said he learned so much about concrete rehabilitation and public affairs, his area to manage for the field school—and about the history of Alcatraz. On his iPhone was a picture of George “Machine Gun” Kelly, who was such a model prisoner, he served as an altar boy in the prison chapel.

Once on the island, we walked by the crowds listening to the park rangers telling the story of Alcatraz. We passed through a “staff and VIP only” barrier (VIPs are “Volunteers in Parks”—regarded as integral to the preservation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area). We climbed a stairway to the balcony of the building that had housed guards and their families, then turned and climbed to another level, where the CIM team kept tools and lunches and had a shop. The aesthetic repair team was there, working on samples of concrete, testing colors and textures to use on the Puppy Stairs project.

The Puppy Stairs were reportedly so named because they have smaller-than-usual steps, constructed so the prison warden’s dog, a small corgi with short legs, could use them. The stairs traverse the hill between the lower-level former guard barracks and the upper-level gardens and prison. They are badly deteriorated from age, weather, and saltwater and have been closed to the public for many years. It was the task of the CIM field school students to rehabilitate them so that they could be used once again.

Eight CIM students were involved in the field school this summer. In addition to Petermann, the following students each had an important management role to play: Andrew Billingsley, recent graduate and the project manager; Steven Aguilar, aesthetic specialist; Brandon Agles, student leader; Kenneth Garcia, demolition specialist; Greg Hollingshead, equipment and scaffolding manager; Brian O’Hair, forming supervisor; Brian Peart, financial officer; and Sofia Salazar, safety officer. In addition, Zachary Fernandez, a recent CSU, Chico graduate in communication design, videotaped the project and created several videos available on YouTube at the CSU, Chico CIM channel.

“This is a hallmark project for us,” says Tanya Komas, CIM director and Preservation Field School coordinator. “It is one thing to work with students in a lab and see their success in that controlled environment, but it is an entirely different experience watching them succeed in the field where they are making the decisions—sometimes trying two or three different things before they come up with a solution they are happy with—and dealing with a wide range of the logistical and professional issues beyond simple concrete repair, including teasing out conflicts between applying the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, with their focus on minimal loss of historic fabric, with ‘textbook’ concrete repair that often calls for a more aggressive approach.”

The students began the rehabilitation of the Puppy Stairs by assessing the entire staircase with input from structural engineers, industry experts, and Jason Hagin, the NPS historical architect who partnered with Komas in developing and running the field school. The students determined that they would need to replace two structural supports and carefully repair areas of the stair treads, railings, railing panels, internal supports, and pilasters.

In June 2011, rehabilitation experts from Texas A&M University, Komas’s alma mater, were invited to bring a state-of-the-art laser scanner to produce ultra-high-resolution 3-D images of the staircase and many other critical sites on Alcatraz. This cross-campus cooperation offered the CSU, Chico students firsthand experience running the scanner. Industry patrons donated materials to the project, including cutting-edge technology such as BASF’s zero-cracking repair materials known as Zero-C and the latest Hilti tools.

Andrew Billingsley, who graduated in May, served as project manager of the Puppy Stairs rehabilitation. He had worked on Alcatraz the previous summer on a pilot project with other CIM students. Billingsley received high praise from Mark Rankin, NPS maintenance crew, who was a liaison with the project. “Andrew sees the large picture,” he said. “This year the students are getting twice as much work done under his leadership because of everything he learned last year.”

Billingsley’s idea of what he will do in the industry has changed with his required business coursework and his experiences on Alcatraz and with the CIM patrons. “I’ve discovered that I really like the people side of the industry,” he said. “I thought I would enter the technical, labor side, but I like problem solving with people and working with management.”

When Petermann and I arrived at the work site, the crew was mixing up some of the zero-cracking repair material with a handheld mixer in a five-gallon bucket and discussing how to do this safely. Safety Officer Sofia Salazar was especially vigilant due to a close call a week earlier in spite of following all safety precautions. It was too close for Salazar, but it made her job a bit easier—everyone was listening to what she had to say. “Safety is the main priority here; it doesn’t matter what task we are working on,” notes Salazar. “Working for the NPS gives us another level of necessity for vigilance—we are working in a highly visible area, where tourists can see our progress at all times.”

The team was getting ready to repair some architectural features on the lower railing. Wooden forms were in place. The students had learned how to work with the zero-cracking material from BASF experts, who made the trip from corporate headquarters to participate in the project, and now they were determining the best way to handle it for this repair.

They were also doing work several levels above, and there was fresh rehabilitation work to look at. We climbed the stairs with Aguilar and Salazar to watch them wield the Barracuda, a specialized drill-like tool with steel brushes. They carefully pitted the surface of a new patch of concrete to create a texture similar to the historic concrete. The sections they’d completed with mechanical pitting and layered applications of an orange, lichen-colored microtopping were virtually indistinguishable from the original, weathered concrete of the Puppy Stairs (see sidebar, below).

Aguilar, leader of the aesthetic repair team, talked about this aspect of the project: “We’ve learned techniques to help give the appearance of aged concrete. It is such an unusual project in that we put in new concrete, but then we made it look old like the surrounding concrete on the island. Since this was like nothing our team had ever done, I learned to take a step a back and really analyze the environment to get a better understanding of how to make the new repairs aesthetically pleasing.”

From this upper level, we could see the flower gardens that arose after 1880s-era Victorian houses were demolished, leaving foundations that formed multilevel terraces. The terraces were filled with soil and planted with intricate gardens that model prisoners tended as one of the most treasured escapes from cell-block life. Now an army of volunteers comes almost daily to maintain the gardens, blooming in early summer with dahlias, daisies, and poppies.

At noon, we returned to the rooms in which the students kept their equipment. (When they left the island each night, they stayed in NPS housing in the Marin Headlands.) During lunch, the students talked about the field school experience. In general, they agreed that they couldn’t ask for a better field placement. They were learning something that would prepare them for work they want to do, and they were working directly with industry leaders and NPS experts.

“I learned a lot about teamwork and managing and adapting to different personalities,” said Aguilar. “One of the most important lessons I learned was to really analyze the project and understand the whole picture before trying to find a solution. It is something I know I will take with me and benefit from greatly in future projects.”

At a recent International Concrete Repair Institute (ICRI) convention, CSU, Chico CIM students actively participated in designing the Surface Repair Inspector Certification that is being developed by ICRI. Peter Emmons, CEO of Structural, a specialty contractor, and Komas are co-authoring the certification. Billingsley and Jonathan Hall, a student from the 2010 team now employed at Structural, worked with Emmons and Komas on test method development for the certification as part of their senior capstone project at CSU, Chico. Komas anticipates that the certification will become an important adjunct to a concrete repair code being developed by the American Concrete Institute to be used throughout the concrete and overall construction industries.

The opportunity to establish an ongoing field school on Alcatraz Island and to provide CIM students with significant and historic concrete rehabilitation challenges is unparalleled in other programs, says Komas. “The partnership among the NPS, CSU, Chico, and industry leaders and decision makers is a powerful force for accomplishing the rehabilitation. For our students to be part of this partnership as equal contributors provides them with a rare opportunity to both learn from the best and contribute to a project of high importance and significance.”

Billingsley said the historical aspect was especially fulfilling. “We are contributing to future generations being able to visit this and see a piece of history,” he said. “We helped preserve the staircase—it’s still here because we worked on it.”

—Kathleen McPartland, Public Affairs and Publications

Preserving a Historic Site

CSU, Chico CIM students carefully treat newly repaired areas (bottom of photo) to match the original, weathered concrete of Alcatraz’s Puppy Stairs (top of photo).
Photo by Beiron Andersson of Steven Auilar, Andrew Billingsley, Sofia Salazar, and Phil Petermann

The Preservation Field School at Alcatraz adheres to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, part of the federally legislated National Historic Preservation Act, which describes preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction. The technique used at Alcatraz is “rehabilitation.” Rehabilitation allows for new, compatible uses and “focuses attention on the preservation of those materials, features, finishes, spaces, and spatial relationships that, together, give a property its historic character.”

In the case of the Puppy Stairs, the CIM team, together with NPS Historical Architect Jason Hagin and Tanya Komas, decided to carefully repair deteriorated areas rather than simply demolish and replace the stairs wholesale. In so doing, the team set the bar high for themselves in terms of achieving durable, appropriate repairs that were also aesthetically blended into the historic fabric.