A construction crew was at work on the Santa Barbara County Courthouse’s Great Arch on Thursday morning, carrying out the first phase of a Santa Barbara Courthouse Legacy Foundation project to restore and preserve its sandstone masonry.
The first stage of the multi-phase project entailed removing a white coating on the sandstone wall of the Anacapa Street side of the arch, which has caused the sandstone to deteriorate at an accelerated rate.
According to Courthouse Legacy Foundation board member Edwin Lenvik, exactly what material the white coating is remains a mystery that wasn’t answered during contractor Evergreene Architectural Arts’ pre-project studies.
“Evergreene, the conservators, did a phase one, phase two, and phase three study to determine what the problem was, how it could be solved, and what the direct application of the solution should be… I don’t know that they actually were able to determine what the white material was,” he said.
Although the white coating was likely originally intended as a shield from water that causes sandstone to deteriorate over time, Evergreene vice president of conservation Joe Sembrat said it wound up just furthering its deterioration. While it’s okay for water to go into sandstone, the water needs to be able to come back out, and the white coat just trapped moisture already inside the stone.
“It wasn’t just really an aesthetic thing of cleaning the building, it was bringing back breathability in the stone,” he said.
When it came to removing the coating, the Courthouse Legacy Foundation specifically wanted a method that would not scrape away the sandstone’s tooling and texture as well. Evergreene put forth several possible methods of removing the white layer including the use of a laser beam, but that method wound up not working in a way that was satisfactory to the Courthouse Legacy Foundation.
Ultimately, Evergreene wound up using a combination of water and biocide to kill biological growth on the sandstone and CO2 pellets to freeze the white coat and make it brittle enough to come off.
Once the layer did come off, it revealed exactly how damaged some of the sandstone blocks had become, with some very noticeable chipping in the structure behind the Spirit of the Ocean statue and fountain.
According to Courthouse Legacy Foundation board president Renee Fairbanks, now that the sandstone is free of the white coating, it will be followed up by fixing the degradation it caused.
“The next stage of this whole effort is to actually repair those damaged pieces,” she said.
The timeline for when the damaged sections of the arch will be replaced is dependent on how much funding the Courthouse Legacy Foundation manages to get. Ms. Fairbanks told the News-Press that the foundation requires at least $220,000 to fully complete the project. Given that the courthouse is closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic resulting in far less foot traffic than usual through the construction area, the foundation would like to secure the needed funds as quickly as possible.
“One thing about this pandemic, it’s been an ideal time to do all this work because the courthouse has been closed. So we haven’t had to worry about public access to the degree we would in normal operational times,” she said.
Because sandstone is what Mr. Sembrat called a “temperamental” stone prone to “inherent problems” like swelling, the Great Arch will always deal with water degradation that will at some point need to be repaired. As a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and restoring the courthouse’s historic qualities, replacing the sandstone arches with a more water resistant material like marble or concrete is out of the question.
“It will always be sandstone and be subject to the same erosion it has always,” Mr. Lenvik said.
He added, “We don’t want to have it be other than what it originally was. So conservation is our main goal. Maybe we can’t conserve, maybe we’ve simply got to work with it over time.”