Issue 12.4: August/September 2009

The Paster Masters

story by Dennis Hollier
photos by Chris McDonough

Because he’s wearing head-phones, Sarel Venter doesn’t hear me enter the room. For a moment, I quietly watch the burly South African plasterer work. His movements are expansive and precise. In his left hand is a hawk, a wooden platter that holds a load of fresh plaster; in his right, a metal trowel. With a subtle flourish of the hawk, he loads the trowel and laves plaster on the wall. Simple though it looks, this is the essence of Venter’s craft: the methodical transfer of plaster from hawk to trowel to wall, hawk to trowel to wall, hawk to trowel to wall. And, like any great plasterer, Venterworks quickly, economically, his mastery belied by the apparent simplicity of his craft. When he is finished, Hulihe‘e Palace will look as it did in 1885, with a healthy new coat of lime plaster, and this smooth wall will bear no trace of him.

The original Hulihe‘e Palace was built by Gov. John Adams Kuakini in 1836. After he died, the Kailua-Kona landmark passed through many hands, including those of Princess Ruth and Bernice Pauahi Bishop. But it was King Kalakaua who first had the bare lava walls plastered in 1885 in keeping with buildings in Europe and Japan that he had admired when he traveled the world beginning in 1881. And it’s the old craft of plastering that has restored Hulihe‘e to its former grandeur as the seaside retreat so beloved by Kalakaua. He called it Hikulani Hale, or “house of the seventh ruler.” And, by the time you read this, the palace will look as it did in 1885, during the reign of Kalakaua—the seventh king after Kamehameha I. The walls plumb, the gables snug under the eaves, the lintels above the windows and doors restored. Once again, the whole building is dressed in a healthy coat of lime plaster. Inside, the glossy new walls are decorated with plaster chair rails and intricate crown moldings. The ceilings—so smooth they almost glisten—show off elaborate plaster lozenges above the chandeliers. On the exterior, the fresh stucco has been tinted subtly and meticulously scribed to resemble cut limestone blocks.

But when I visited the palace last August, it was a shambles. Nearly two years earlier, Hulihe‘e had been wracked by the earthquake of 2006, a jolt that sent pieces of plaster crashing to the floor, laced the walls with a spider web of cracks and shivered sections of the antique molding. Outside, deep fissures appeared in the façade. High up in the gables, the tremors loosened the old stonework, pulverizing the mortar and pulling the stucco away from the wall. By the time the shaking ended, the building was damaged badly enough that it had to be closed to the public, and the Daughters of Hawai‘i, the organization that manages the palace, was faced with a major restoration. But the mess was just getting started.

The chaotic business of returning Hulihe‘e to what it looked like in 1885 required the work of many people: architects and engineers, masons and carpenters. Local firm Mason Architects, which had restored other Hawai‘i land-marks like Doris Duke’s Shangri-La and Hawaiian Hall at Bishop Museum, led the effort. But there were no local companies with the expertise to handle the arcane work of hydraulic lime plastering. The bulk of that effort (and most of the mess) fell to a small team of plasterers from John Canning Painting and Conservation Studios, a Connecticut firm specializing in historic restorations. Canning Studios has had a hand in the ornamental plaster, decorative painting and lush gilding of such iconic buildings as Grand Central Station and Radio City Music Hall in New York City, and Trinity Church in Boston. Here in Hawai‘i they helped preserve the intricate Moroccan flourishes of Shangri-La. The period replastering of Hulihe‘e, while less elaborate than that, still called for nearly forgotten Old World craftsmanship. Two men were responsible for most of the work: Scott Adams, the Canning foreman who supervised the exterior plastering, and, especially, Sarel Venter.

I find Venter up in one of the second-floor bedrooms, just beginning to trowel plaster onto a wall that has been stripped nearly to bare stone. He’s wearing old, dirty dungarees, a yellow shirt copiously flecked with plaster and bulky, old-fashioned headphones. But there’s something magisterial about him up there on the scaffolding, his back to the room, 
his arms outstretched like a maestro.

Venter is just at the start of a long process. Plaster is applied in multiple layers, each of which must cure before the next is laid. First, a thick scratch coat fills in irregularities in the wall; very rough surfaces might require several thinner scratch coats. Venter, for example, begins by filling in a hollow section of the wall caused by the settling of the building over the decades. He forces the plaster firmly into the rough lava, gradually building up a level surface. Often, scratch coats are scored with a rake to leave enough “tooth” to hold the next layer of plaster, called the brown coat, which creates a smooth surface.

For a master like Venter, the work seems automatic, almost casual. Watch his hands, though, and you’ll see how carefully he modulates the pressure of his trowel and the faint bevel of its surface against the wall. By the time he gets to the finish, the skim coat, he will work his trowel so precisely that the thin layer of plaster will go on smooth as paint. After days or even weeks of pummeling this wall, there will be no trace of Venter’s trowel left behind.

When he finally notices me, Venter pulls off his headphones and steps down from the scaffolding. He’s passionate about historic restoration; he and his wife, who’s an artist, live in a 100-year-old West Virginia schoolhouse. He teaches classes on historic plastering for the West Virginia Preservation Trades Network, and he has put his trowel to the walls of significant historic buildings around the world. He notes that the trend toward preserving historic buildings is partly driven by tourism. “It’s been shown,” he says, “that a dollar spent on historic preservation is worth more than almost any other kind of development.” That’s particularly true, of course, in a place like Hawai‘i, where there are fewer of these buildings to preserve. That’s what makes Hulihe‘e so important. “If people want to see Hawaiian culture, they don’t have many options,” he says.

Venter brings an especially broad range of experience to the Hulihe‘e project. “My work is not just plaster, necessarily,” he explains. “My work is mostly problems. Here it was cracks.” Not just from earthquakes, but also from the incessant, often imperceptible movement of the ground—even that caused by heavy traffic on nearby Ali‘i Drive. “The solution, in this case,” he said, “was to use a very, very, very flexible layer of fine mesh between the brown coat and the skim coat.” He gestures to a partly finished wall where a scrap of gauze-like mesh is visible along the crown molding.

Because the palace is on the National Register of Historic Places, any restoration has to be accurate to a particular historical era. The Daughters of Hawai‘i chose the Kalakaua period, circa 1885, because it allowed them to keep the large, two-storey lanai that he added on the harbor side of the building. But it was also at that time that Kalakaua had the exterior plastered and scored to resemble stone block construction. This detail had been obscured by succeeding plasterwork, and the plan was to restore it. “The exterior is where the real drama is,” Venter says, in part because of the application of hydraulic lime, a rarely used Old World product that matches the original plaster.

Outside, the exterior is even more of a disaster area than the inside. Workers has stripped the walls of all their plaster, stones from the ransacked gables are piled in the yard and the building has been swaddled in filthy tarps and plastic sheets.

I catch up with Scott Adams of John Canning Painting and Conservation Studios on the mauka (toward the mountains) side of the building, where his gang is pulling aside the tarps and slinging plaster into the cracks between the stones. “We’re just putting on our first application,” Adams says, shaking my hand. “They’re doing what we call a ‘dash coat,’ filling in the larger gaps before the traditional three coats of plaster.” Adams is a good deal younger than Venter but still an old hand at plastering, having done it for fifteen years. Like Venter, Adams and his team have traveled around the country, restoring major buildings like state capitals and cathedrals. “This is the highlight, though,” Adams says, gesturing to the sweeping view of Kailua Bay.

Once the dash coat is finished, the detail work will begin. Canning specializes in ornamental plasterwork; Adams opens his tool kit to give me an idea of how meticulous this aspect of the craft can be. “When someone applies for a job as an ornamental plasterer,” Adams said, “you say, ‘Let me see your tool bag.’” It’s easy to see why: In addition to the various trowels, darbys and floats, he had dozens of more obscure tools. “This is a small-tool bag,” he said, pulling out a canvas bundle bristling with specialty tools: tiny, diamond-shaped trowels and chisels; miniature miter rods to finish the plaster on interior corners; ornamental tools to sculpt plaster into elaborate decorative molding.

It’s hard to imagine now, here in the tumult of scaffolding and tarps and bags of lime, but by the time you read this, these tools will have restored the luster of 1885 to Hulihe‘e Palace. The interior walls will have been darbyed to a glossy finish. Faux limestone blocks will have been scribed into the hydraulic lime exterior. And a bit of the Old World will have been conserved in the new. In this way the old art of plastering resurrects our collective past. It’s this intimacy with history that draws men like Adams and Venter to the life of the trowel. HH