April 23, 2018
For some of the big catalytic preservation and reuse projects out there, it can take a village of craftspeople and specialists to properly restore and preserve them. One of the biggest and best contractors who can manage big picture preservation projects is with us today! Tyler Tate is the President of Lewis Contractors, a construction company that specializes in historic institutional buildings. Tyler spoke with Nick about the nitty gritty details of some of the many unique projects his company has been involved in, like the Washington Monument in Baltimore, the Brice House in Annapolis, and more. We won’t try to build your anticipation any longer, listen to this episode below.
[Nick Redding] For some of the larger historic buildings out there it can take a number of craftspeople and specialists to properly restore and preserve them. But few have the knowledge and ability to organize stone masons, window craftsmen, and countless other trade specialists who may otherwise be used to working independently. One of those few is with us today. Tyler Tate is the president of Lewis Contractors, a construction company that in part specializes in historic buildings. Tyler spoke with me about details of some of the many unique projects his company has been involved in, like the Washington Monument in Baltimore, the Brice House in Annapolis, any many, many more. I won’t try to build any anticipation [any] longer because this is PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast!
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Redding and you’re listening to PreserveCast. Today we are joined by Tyler Tate who is an 11-year veteran of Lewis Contractors, the past five years serving as president. He’s a summa cum laude graduate of Lehigh University and he holds a Master’s degree in civil engineering. Tyler is also a Baltimore area resident who’s actively engaged in the community. He serves as a volunteer with numerous local organizations including the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood Museum, and important for our purposes on the board of Preservation Maryland. Tyler, it is a pleasure to have you on PreserveCast today.
[Tyler Tate] Nick, thank you so much for having me, I really appreciate the very gracious introduction and I’m honored to be a part of this.
[NR] We always talk to people about how they get into this line of work, and sometimes we talk to people in the non-profit field, and we talk to people who work with their hands and do this kind of work. You’re actually running a company that is getting a lot of big projects done, how does someone get into that line of work? What took you in this direction? How did you end up becoming the president of Lewis Contractors?
[TT] Well, you know, the funny thing about the construction business, Nick, is that there is really no two ways of approaching the construction business are identical. Amongst the people in this field you have people from a wide range of interests, wide range of backgrounds converging upon this art and this business of making things, making buildings, and restoring them in our case. You never have two identical ways, but in my case I’m a third-generation builder. The Tate family began building when my grandfather came back from World War II, so it’s something that’s been in our family for a long time. And so growing up, I always had that natural desire to put things together and to explore and to learn about buildings and that’s why I went onto engineering school and that’s why I’m now blessed to be leading this wonderful team at Lewis Contractors.
[NR] So why don’t you give us a sense for who Lewis Contractors is because I think a lot of people have this conception that all contracting firms are kind of the same and there’s different types of contractors out there. So, how many staff do you have? Do you employ the craftsmen as your team? Do you sub them out? How does that work? How does Lewis Contractors do their work?
[TT] Oh no, I think that’s a great question. We’re a very special group of people. There are 70 people here at Lewis, and or focus is primarily on institutional construction, something that is a very unique line of work. Oftentimes, you’ll hear commercial construction, which we do, or you’ll hear residential construction, but our focus is on institutional. So that’s everything that you can think of from hospitals, to schools, to colleges and universities non-profits, churches, all those types of institutions, that’s our focus. And we have a very rewarding specialty in historic restoration and for that – you kind of hinted at that a little bit earlier – we have craftsmen on our team. But we also often find ourselves partnering with many craftsmen in our area, in Baltimore City, in the region, and even nationwide in delivering our projects.
[NR] And so you mentioned that there’s sort of this institutional focus and a big chunk of that is preservation. Has preservation always been a part of your portfolio? Is it an expanding part? I mean I don’t know. Can you live on preservation alone? It doesn’t sound like that. It sounds like you’re doing a wide variety of different things, but how does that work out?
[TT] Yeah. We are. We’re delivering everything from brand new buildings, those kinds of projects, to restoring the treasures of greater Baltimore and throughout Maryland. And so we do a very good amount of rehab work and a lot of restoration work. This all started for us decades ago when we had an opportunity to come and do the restoration at the Homewood Museum on the campus of John Hopkins University. That was a signature project for us and it lead to many great things, and one of them was a growing practice in this specialty of historic restoration. That opened doors for us to then move on and work at Monticello about a decade later, which later opened a door for us to work in the restoration of the Basilica of the Assumption. America’s first Roman-Catholic cathedral is right here in Baltimore and the Lewis team spearheaded that project, both the original restoration and then the post-earthquake retrofit some years later. And then from there, we’ve had a wide range of opportunities throughout Annapolis, throughout Baltimore City, throughout Maryland itself. Other highlights include even the Washington Monument project in Mount Vernon, which was a very special project for us. All the way up to the opera house in Havre de Grace, the 1 West Mount Vernon Place for The Walters, Lovely Lane United Methodist Church, First & Franklin [Presbyterian Church]. When you get into a groove of being able to do historic projects, you’re blessed with many opportunities over and over because you’re developing that skill set and you’re developing that craft, and there’s just not a lot of that out there.
[NR] Yeah. It’s interesting, and you touched on Washington Monument, which I think people might be interested in. You mentioned a lot of iconic places in Maryland and really iconic in the nation for that matter. But Washington Monument I know was a project that gained a lot of notoriety for Lewis and I think you’ve been able to parlay that into some interesting projects around the state and the region for that matter. Why don’t you tell us what did Louis do? What was your role in Washington Monument? Walk us through that kind of project, what you’re actually doing for the client in a situation like that.
[TT] So what we do is we’ll act as either construction manager or general contractor in delivering the project but, in essence, we’re taking the lead and we are getting the client from point A to point B. We are not the architect. That’s typically procured directly by the client and they work for the client, but we’re the builder and we get them from the very beginning of the project – from groundbreaking to ribbon cutting, as they say. So on a project like the Monument – obviously, the Monument was a tremendously unique project in that involved a range of specialty trades, people who are throughout our region, great in talent, but few in number. When you’re talking about ornamental wrought iron restoration or stonework and stone restoration, all the way up to all the elements we recreated for the monument and all the work inside and out. You’re talking about some particular trades. I mean, my goodness, on the Monument, even the scaffolding aspect was one of the most interesting challenges of the project and required a specialty scaffolder who did a fantastic job for us. So our job is not just to corral all those forces and guide them, but to truly lead them, and sequence them, and schedule them, and provide the cash flow, and both the project management and the financial management of the project so that we are moving this project along and getting the client from point A to point B.
[NR] So Tyler, what do you mean by specialty scaffolding? How did that play out at the Washington Monument?
[TT] Well as we say sometimes in the historic business, in the preservation business, getting there is half the fun, and the Washington Monument was certainly no exception. The scaffolding there was specialty because the Monument is this tremendously historic structure, and we just couldn’t go up and down the Monument itself hammering in or drilling in anchors into the Monument. But uniquely, we didn’t have to. The Monument, in planned view is a circle since it’s a column. Our scaffolding was erected around the Monument, and it was never actually drilled into or anchored into the monument. It didn’t have to be. We used a series of compression pads and neoprene pads and compression bearings around the Monument so that the scaffold was always touching the Monument in compression. In other words, if the wind blew from one direction, the scaffolding would kind of not move but bear ever so slightly against the Monument itself in that direction. If the wind suddenly changed directions, the scaffolding would bear against the Monument in the opposite direction. So we were able to provide a perfectly safe, very rigid platform from which all these craftsmen could get to work without going up and down putting holes in the Monument. It was a specialty application, and a neat exercise in engineering.
[NR] And I’m curious. It’s interesting, as you mentioned, all the different types of sort of specialty craft. Is that getting harder to find? Is it a challenge to find the right people? Are they aging out? Are you seeing the same thing that’s sort of across the industry? Is that becoming an issue?
[TT] Well, I think across the entire construction industry, anybody would tell you right now that labor is in extremely high demand. And that’s regardless of if it’s a wonderful historic mason or it’s an electrician. There is a lot of work going on in the market right now and trade contractors are working very hard to find the right people and get them doing these projects. It’s a natural outgrowth, of course, of the recession from some years ago and how the market changed. Now things are back again and there’s real demand. But to your point of aging out, so to speak, of some of these specialty trades. I’ve been very refreshed to see, particularly in recent years, growing interest in some of these craft level trades. From people who are new to the industry or just out of high school or college or vocational technical school. There’s a growing interest. So often, the stereotype of certain types of craftsmen all aging out, when you really dig deep and you really look into the market, you see some very refreshing signs of interest across the demographic.
[NR] Yeah, it’s good to hear, and important for your work. Because if you can’t find the right people, you can’t take on these types of projects.
[TT] Oh, Nick, this business and the construction business as a whole is all about the people.
[NR] Well why don’t we take a quick break here? And when we come back, well maybe we can dig into some of these exciting projects that you’re working on, or have worked on in the past few years, and some that you’re working on right now. And we’ll do that when we return right here on PreserveCast.
And now it’s time for a Preservation Explanation
[Stephen Israel] You may or may not have taken part, but this past Sunday, April 22nd, was the 48th celebration of Earth Day in the United States. Although on its face it appears fairly simple, a day set aside to promote environmental activism and awareness, the celebration of Earth Day is pretty unique in history. With roughly a billion participants worldwide every year, according to the non-profit Earth Day Network, it is arguably the largest secular holiday in the history of the the world. How did it start?
After witnessing a massive oil spill near Santa Barbara, California in 1969, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin got a firmer grasp of the dire need for activism and education on environmental issues on the national stage. A Democrat, Nelson first convinced Republican congressman Pete McCloskey to join him in co-chairing what he would always refer to as a “National Teach-In on the Environment.” Dennis Hayes, a noted student demonstrator while an undergraduate student at Stanford, and at the time, a Harvard graduate student, was selected by Nelson to organize the event. Unlike most other widely observed holidays, Earth Day’s date was chosen strategically to encourage student involvement. You see, it falls between Spring break and final exams when the weather is nice enough for people to want to hang out outside. And the plan worked as the first Earth Day in 1970 saw over 20 million Americans protesting, teaching and expressing their concern for the environment.
Something that may not have worked quite as well about the day of April 22nd is that it falls almost exactly one month after the Vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere. March 21st, which in 1970 was also named Earth Day by the United Nations and peace activist John McConnell, a day to honor the planet and the concept of peace. Over time, these two celebrations have, for the most part, merged into one big one, which makes sense seeing as how they both were attempting to harness the energy of the student activism of the 1960s. Whether you celebrated by marching or planting a tree or making a real effort to live sustainably, a note for historic preservation, the greenest building can often be the one already built. Happy Earth Day! But I don’t want to keep you so long you grow roots. Get back to PreserveCast.
PreserveCast isn’t the only project powered by Preservation Maryland. And if you’re involvement in preservation reaches beyond this podcast, we may have just the thing for you. As a whole, preservationists add billions of dollars to the economy as they maintain historic properties, revitalize neighborhoods, travel to historic sites, and invest in their communities. They are a market segment that we want to help cultivate on Preserve List, showcasing skills and architectural design, project management, real estate, preservation trades, and beyond. Preserve List is the go-to directory for preservation-minded businesses in the mid-Atlantic region. Whether you’re a customer or a business, go check out PreserveList.org. You can search the list by location or products and services. Or you can click on the “Get listed” tab or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for information on how to add your company’s name to the directory. Preserve List is the perfect tool for historic preservationists needs in the twenty-first century because historic preservation means business.
[NR] This is Nick Redding, you’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re joined today by Tyler Tate, who is the president of Lewis Contractors. We’ve been talking about all things, how a preservation contractor works, how they manage projects, and how they take people from the inception to the ribbon cutting. And we talked a little bit about Washington Monument here in Baltimore and how much work was involved in bringing that project together, all the specialty trades. But Washington Monument was something that you guys worked on a few years ago and was a fantastic sort of a seminal project. But you have some really exciting things that you’ve worked on recently. The Hackerman House, I think you mentioned the address of it before. You want to tell us a little bit about what you worked on there? It’s sort of in the shadow of the Washington Monument, I guess.
[TT] Oh, sure. But very much a landmark in its own right. The Hackerman House, as it’s popularly known, or 1 West Mount Vernon Place, is, of course, the old Thomas Residence which over years of ownership and transition eventually became a part of the Walters Art Museum and and housed many of their collections there. We had a project to both restore but also to introduce museum quality systems into the Hackerman House to upgrade its capability to showcase many of these treasures. The people of the Walters are absolutely phenomenal people. And so, being able to deliver a project of this caliber and in this style with such wonderful partners and the client was truly fantastic.
The project featured all of your traditional restorative trades. Everything from masonry work on the exterior to restoration of these unique antefixes along the roof, the parapet, of the building. Moving inside you had your ornamental plasterwork and historic wood floors. Of course, the Tiffany stained glass window in the entry hall, all of these wonderful opportunities to bring in elements of craft into the project. But what was also really neat about the Walters was the guts of the project, the systems, so to speak, that we had to introduce and conceal along the way.
[NR] So you’re talking about fire suppression, things like that?
[TT] Yes, and that’s actually an excellent example, Nick. We introduced into the Walters a water mist fire suppression system, which is a little different than a conventional wet pipe sprinkler system. If you can think of a sprinkler system in a commercial building, maybe in the office that we’re sitting in right now. You look up and if you hit that thing there’s going to be a lot of water. If the little bead inside of it melts there’s going to be a tremendous amount of water coming out and it’s going to put that fire out, but it’s also going to put a lot of water into your building. Well, when you have art collections and historic objects, and as the Walters put it so well themselves, when the very home that you’re showcasing these pieces in is a historic artifact in and of itself you need to be very sensitive to the idea that if there were some sort of fire incident that you’re not also, in addition to putting the fire out, ruining your historic treasures including the house. So the water mist fire suppression system is a system that helps with that. [It] uses high-pressure water pushed out through a very small nozzle and it creates a mist. And, in brief terms, as the fire consumes oxygen and draws a draft to itself it’ll draw the mist to itself and self-extinguish. Because the water droplets are so fine it’s more like walking through a foggy morning than it is walking through a rain shower. And you know if you walk through a foggy morning you’re not necessarily going to get soaked. So the idea is when this discharges it will not cause the type of damage to the artwork that a conventional sprinkler system would. So that’s my little soapbox on water mist fire suppression.
[NR] But that’s a complex thing. I mean that’s not easy to conceal in a historic structure I would imagine, as well.
[TT] No. It has, like any other system, it has its own unique elements and pieces and junction boxes and controls and associated smoke detectors and all of these things that need to be concealed behind the wall. So we worked closely with the architectural team, the Walters, even the Maryland Historical Trust was wonderful in interacting and trying to find ways to be respectful of the historic fabric of the building while also providing this enhanced level of protection. So what does that mean? We weren’t in there chopping up walls and channeling historic plaster to find places to put pipes. We were surgically removing parts of the floor on the level above so that we could drop heads to the level below. And other types of things to just really minimize how invasive we were at the building but maximize the level of protection the building has when you walk away.
And it was like that with water mist, it was like that with fire protection, the security systems, the lighting, even the HVAC systems, and the associated controls. Those of us in the building business really like to nerd out on those types of things because it is very rewarding to be able to walk away from a historic project where it not only looks wonderful and it’s been restored to an appropriate time but it is also so now protected and enhanced for the future, and you just wouldn’t know it by looking around the building. So that’s really rewarding, and I think that’s one other thing that gives our team a lot of satisfaction.
[NR] Yeah. It’s interesting that if you do a good job in your line of work, sometimes the goal is that no one knows.
[TT] As if we weren’t even there. Yep.
[NR] As if you weren’t even there. So speaking of doing a good job and maybe the last project we should talk about is one that is sort of being heralded as perhaps one of the finest colonial homes in America currently under rehabilitation, which is the Brice House in Annapolis, Maryland. So we’ve been talking about some Baltimore projects, but you’ve got something that’s going on in Annapolis that’s pretty special. What is the Brice House? What’s your role in it? What’s going to be the end product there?
[TT] Well, the James Brice House is a wonderful journey that over the past nine months we’ve been conducting what we call in the business building forensic examinations and exploratory work, not to mention the initial stages of the restoration project itself. All of this under the close coordination with the Maryland Historic Trust and the leadership of Historic Annapolis, which is responsible for a number of properties in the Annapolis city, and their main offices are actually located in the east wing of the Brice House.
The name James Brice, who was an important figure in American history and certainly in Annapolis history – although that name you certainly wouldn’t hear mentioned in the same sentence as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, you would certainly not be wrong in uttering his house in the same sentence as places like Monticello or Washington’s Mount Vernon or Montpelier. It is that same level of grand colonial home and the same caliber and uniqueness of construction methods from that time. And so as we begin and continue our work at the James Brice House, it’s making for a very fascinating journey from the very first day.
[NR] And what’s the end product going to be there? What will people eventually be able to see once your work is all done?
[TT] This house, like any other historic property that’s had many different owners over the years – after all, Historic Annapolis only came into ownership of the house some years ago – has many accouterments, for lack of a better word, added to it over the decades and decades. [Our] charge is to restore it to its original place of historic appropriateness. And so we will be opening up spaces that had been closed off, some of the ancillary areas; but primarily, we’ll be restoring in place many of the historic finishes. And also, like our work at the Walters, introducing new building systems that are going to help this building survive the next 200 years without deterioration that would otherwise occur in a colonial home that was built before there were systems in place to preserve these places. So the end result is going to be a very true-to-form restoration and a very historically-appropriate example of just what these places were. And I think Historic Annapolis has some very exciting plans that they’re in the process of communicating and rolling out about how it will be used and what will be done there and all these wonderful things. So we’re very excited about it.
[NR] Pretty exciting, a lot of cool projects going on. If people want to learn more about Lewis or they have a project that they are interested in finding someone to help them work on, how do they get in touch with Lewis Contractors?
[TT] They can check out our website, L-E-W-I-S-Contractors.com, Lewis-Contractors.com. And on that website we have some more examples, some things we didn’t talk about today, some other wonderful projects around our area and examples of our work. And we’d be delighted to see them and all the contact information is on that website. They can follow us on Facebook and all the other social media, as well. But the website’s probably the best place to start.
[NR] Awesome. And before we let you go, the most difficult question we’ll ask all day: your favorite historic place or building?
[TT] And you know that’s a hard question [laughter] for a builder to answer because there are so many special places. You know the funny thing is, Nick, is it is our place itself, our home here in Maryland to me that is the most interesting historical place. Of that, there are all of these wonderful buildings that we have the opportunity to touch. There are the people that we have the opportunity to work with, and there are our customers and design professionals and others that we get the opportunity to interact with. The place is Maryland because this place is so rich in all the history, whether it’s the built environment or our cultural history. It’s everything. Everything’s here.
[NR] That’s a good builder answer because you can’t give us one, right? Because it’s got to be your current client, right? Brice House.
[TT] I know so many special places. It is truly hard to choose.
[NR] Well, Tyler, it’s been a pleasure to have you on. Thank you for joining us and for all the good work that you’re doing. I mean, it takes an entire community of different resources to pull these projects together and, but for the involvement of companies like Lewis Contractors, we wouldn’t actually be able to get the physical work done, and it’s such a critically important part of preservation. And so thanks for all your work that you’re doing and that your entire team is doing and look forward to hearing more about Lewis Contractors in the future.
[TT] Well, Nick, thank you. And like I said earlier, it’s all about the people. So I’m blessed to work with this team and really appreciate the opportunity to be able to tell you a little bit about what we’re doing on this podcast. And to you and everyone at Preservation Maryland, I say thank you for all you guys are doing. You’d be hard-pressed to find a place in this state where people aren’t singing you and your team’s praises all over the place and all the good work you’re doing. So things like this podcast are just another example of the fine work by Preservation Maryland. So thank you, Nick.
[NR] Thanks, Tyler.
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This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service, and in partnership with the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
Our website is made possible by the Historic Preservation Education Foundation. This week’s episode was produced and engineered by me, Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band, Pretty Gritty. And most importantly, thank you for listening and preserving!
Tyler mentioned his previous preservation contracting work in Monticello in Virginia. Did you know that nearby Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, is considered one of the most “Instagrammable” historic sites?