When Union Station was restored more than 15 years ago, the Baltimore-based firm Hayles & Howe sent a group of classically trained British plaster craftsmen to work with a small local crew on the elaborate molding pieces in the building.
Dave Boux was one of those local workers. Even though Boux was a fourth-generation plasterer, the British workers were a class above him, learning the trade by restoring some of the finest palaces in the world, from the Imperial Palace in Tokyo to Buckingham Palace in London.
“Working with people with that kind of experience, it was just very eye-opening to what’s possible,” Boux said.
Several years later, Boux used those skills to start his own ornamental plaster company, and in 2013 he merged with Brad Bruce to co-found Plasterkraft & Mural Masters. The restoration skills of Boux and Bruce can be found in work at the Cosby Hotel, the Midland and the Hotel Phillips, and even on the Missouri state seal at the Capitol in Jefferson City.
The firm is among a handful of locally owned companies specializing in plaster restoration. In the last year alone, Boux said, Plasterkraft saw revenue double as demand for its restoration services grew. Other architecture firms specializing in restoration also report an increase in business, thanks partly to the development resurgence in downtown Kansas City and a growing desire for revamped living spaces in the urban core.
Trudy Faulkner, principal at Strata Architecture + Preservation, said her company had seen an “exponential increase” in activity of people moving ahead on projects that had been on hold.
“There’s been a huge push for restoring historic structures lately, one because it’s more economical,” Faulkner said. “The infrastructure is already there, the guts of the building are already there, so you’re using that embodied energy that’s already available and just expanding on that and making it more sustainable and efficient.”
Lurita McIntosh Blank, materials conservator at Walter P Moore, an international engineering firm with an office in Kansas City, said the company has also seen growth in its restoration services. But, she noted, restoration has always been a part of the area’s history.
“I think it looks like we’re having a restoration boom right now, when, in actuality, we’re just getting back to normal,” McIntosh Blank said. “This is what Kansas City has looked like for a very long time.”
McIntosh Blank used the region’s focus on restoration to make a case for bringing one of the industry’s largest technical conferences to Kansas City.
“It was pretty easy to make an argument for Kansas City,” McIntosh Blank said. “I hate to call it our best kept secret, but the preservation and restoration industry in Kansas City in particular, and in the Midwest in general, has always been very strong.”
For the first time, the Association for Preservation Technology International, which has held conferences in Los Angeles, Montreal, Quebec and New York, will hold a conference in the Midwest. More than 600 preservation experts will travel to Kansas City for the Nov. 1-5 conference. Those attending will get a look at Kansas City’s art deco and Spanish revival architecture and learn about new restoration techniques unique to the area.
That “strong history” is most evident in Missouri’s and Kansas’ use of state and federal historic tax credits in restoration projects.
Missouri, for one, has long been a leader in the use of the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program.
The program, created in 1976, allows private investors a 20 percent federal income tax credit on qualified rehabilitation expenses on buildings the National Park Service deems “certified historic structures.”
In the decade between 2003 and 2012, Missouri was ranked among the top three states in rehabilitation activity, along with Ohio and Virginia.
Kansas is also considered a higher-volume state for the program and is consistently ranked 14th or 15th in the nation for the number of projects reviewed for program eligibility, said Kristen Johnston, Kansas historic tax credit specialist.
Missouri and Kansas are also among more than 30 states that have state tax credit programs in place. In Missouri and Kansas, investors also can receive an additional 25 percent break on state income taxes for qualified restoration projects.
Missouri’s program has resulted in more than 5,500 restoration-related jobs from 2010 to 2015, according to Amy Susan, director of marketing and communications for the Missouri Department of Economic Development.
A separate study from St. Louis University reports even higher job numbers spurred by Missouri’s state credit. The 2010 report showed that Missouri’s program led to 43,150 new or retained jobs between 2000 and 2009 and that the program has been considered a model for other states since its creation in 1998.
Since Kansas enacted its program in 2001, the state credits have resulted in more than 15,000 jobs, 11,000 projects and $717 million in gross domestic product for the state from 2002 to 2015, according to Johnston.
Plasterkraft’s latest restoration project at the Gumbel Building, at 801 Walnut St. in downtown Kansas City, is one example of how the credits can act as an incentive for private investment. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, making it eligible for the credits.
When Lotus Hospitality chief executive Mark Patel bought the historic building, he wasn’t convinced its elaborate ceiling moldings could be saved.
It took the owners of Plasterkraft walking through the building’s front door to persuade him to preserve the historic fabric of the building, which has seen a good amount of wear since its opening in 1904.
“I just took their name and number and held on to it,” Patel said. “But the more I looked at the building, and the more detail I saw on the outside of the building, I kind of started falling in love with it. I thought, ‘You know, I’m going to go for it. I’m going to restore it.’”
Plasterkraft’s work on the Gumbel Building has ranged from partial reconstruction of the stone eagles and carved pieces that line the exterior of the building to complete re-creation of most of the building’s interior cornice work. Some pieces can be saved, but water damage has compromised others.
Boux and Bruce work with six other full-time employees plus an in-house architect to restore buildings.
Although every project is different, Plasterkraft’s restoration work at the Gumbel Building follows a standard series of steps. Workers first remove old blocks from the building and bring the pieces to their studio in the West Bottoms. The plasterers make silicon molds of the old pieces, which are then recast in gypsum or casting cement to add back onto the building.
One piece takes three to four days to complete, and Plasterkraft can often make only two or three new pieces a day as they wait for each piece to dry. On the Gumbel Building, they will rebuild 100 to 150 pieces this way.
Patel estimates that the building restoration project will cost more than $6 million, but the project is eligible for more than $1.5 million in combined state and federal historic tax credits. The building will reopen as a Hampton Inn at the end of October.
Patel, who previously worked with new construction only, says he looks at projects in a new way. He is currently restoring a second property, the nearly 100-year-old Interstate Building, at 417 E. 13th St., into a Holiday Inn Express.
“With the experience I’ve learned here, I don’t think I will do new buildings anymore,” Patel said. “I think the bug has bit me to preserve history here in town and elsewhere. I look at buildings in a different light.”