To preserve & protect

Architect Stephen Kelley is working to save history, one building at a time

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By LAURA STUART

Oak Parker Stephen Kelley is a preservation architect and structural engineer, so inspecting a building is standard operating procedure for him. That's why, last week, he was planning to take a look at the Tribune Tower's exteriorâ€"by rappelling down the facade, holding disaster at bay with two ropes.

"Go all the way to the top, out on a flying buttress, and drop down to the ground," Kelley explains nonchalantly. "I have a guy who comes in from Denver, a rock climber, who sets it all up."

The Tribune drop won't take place until after Labor Day, but Kelley did a run down the nine-story WGN building last week.

He's an old hand at doing the Spiderman thing. He trained on the Nebraska State Capital, all 450 feet of it.

Kelley admits he feels some "white knuckle" fear, but mostly, he says, it's "fun and exciting." For the Tribune adventure, he was more concerned about a nesting Peregrine falcon than he was about the trip down.

It's all part of the job. Kelley is a senior consultant with Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. in Chicago. He's the project architect and engineer for the restoration of the exterior of the Tribune Tower, and has done local preservation work on the Reliance Building, the Rookery, the new Hard Rock Hotel (Carbide and Carbon Building), Holy Family Church, St. Ignatius Church and Old St. Patrick's Church.

Kelley's firm also works on government buildings; along with the one in Nebraska, Kelley has advised on state capitals in Illinois, Georgia and Kentucky. Currently, he's the historic preservation consultant on the Executive Office Building (West Wing) in Washington, D.C.

"They're 'hardening' the West Wing so it will withstand bullets and bombs. It's quite a challengeâ€"I'm trying to save the historic fabric. Everyone else wants to tear it out," he says.

And for the last 10 years, Kelley also has been involved in international preservation work. As a consultant to the International Council on Monuments and Sites, UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization), the World Monuments Fund, the Smithsonian Institute and other organizations, Kelley has traveled to Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Macedonia, Turkey and Jordan to help save historic structures. He currently is consulting on projects in Poland, Russia and Ukraine.

Doctor Kelley

Kelley and wife Susan (a DOOPER, he points out) bought their own preservation project, a funky Oak Park Romanesque Victorian, in 1983, "to raise our children who didn't exist yet," he says.

Three kids followed, as did a few decades of restoration on the house. "It was a real mess. We're still working on it," he says.

Round two in the kitchen is about to start. Kelley was the architect the first time around but admits, "I've learned my lesson. Kitchens aren't what I do." They've got an architect and are taking bids from contractors now.

Kelley recalls "gravitating toward preservation" work in college, even though it wasn't something people studied much then.

"It's almost like archeology," he says, adding that his work is "technical preservationâ€"structure, bricks, mortar, wood, plaster." Over the years he's earned a host of awards, and authored a number
of books and scads of articles for professional
journals.

But technical details aside, Kelley insists what he does isn't that hard to understand. "I'm a building doctor. The buildings are my patients. I go through the case history first, then investigate," he explains. With a laboratory of chemists and geologists on hand, he takes samples of the building materials and has them analyzed. Then he "makes a diagnosis" and comes up with "therapy."

His first international project was in 1995, on Kizhi Island in Lake Onega in Karelia, Russia. The Church of the Transfiguration is a wooden log construction, 22-domed church built in 1714. It's the sole remaining example of its style and "the most famous wood church in the world," says Kelley.

It had been designated a UNESCO site, and the powers-that-be were worried that the Russian preservation team's approachâ€""analyzing a wood log church on the computer"â€"was a mistake. A Canadian friend said they needed someone with a "technical engineering mind" to check it out, recalls Kelley, and he agreed to go.

In January 1995, Kelley and one other American flew to the island, located in Northwestern Russia, in January. They lived in log cabins for a week, "climbing all over the church." It's deserted in the winter, and climbing inside was made easier by existing scaffolding. After the inspection, they met with the Minister of Culture in Moscow and then engineers in Kirov, where they spent a week reviewing the Russians' calculations before returning to Moscow to report their findings.

They were lucky, recalls Kelley, that the temperature was warm for the season: 10 degrees.
"It was gorgeous, a fairyland," he says. "The sunrises started at 10 a.m. and went on for 45 minutes. At 4 p.m. there were long, beautiful sunsets. Ice needles were as long as my finger, on every plant."

And their conclusion? "We told them they were on the right track. Russians are computer people. They all have engineer minds," says Kelley. He's still in touch with the curator there, as preservation efforts continue.

In 1996, Kelley ventured to Jordan, on a very different kind of project. In the UNESCO World Heritage site of Petra there are 2,000-year-old temples carved into towering sandstone cliffs. Kelley was called in by the American Center of Oriental Research to do a seismic feasibility study of the Qasr al-Bint Monument, believed to be a Nabatean Temple constructed in 4 BCE.

"They have big earthquakes there. We climbed around, measured, recorded damage," he explains. "It's a ruin; they'd done consolidation work in the 1960s but it needed more work. It was obviousâ€"it would not survive another earthquake."

A Bedouin tribe lives on the site, and Kelley made friends there. "Arabs are some of the friendliest people you meet," he says.

Sometimes, Kelley is called on to navigate local politics. An effort to rebuild the Uspensky Sobor, a cathedral in Kiev blown up by Germans (or Soviets, depending on who's telling the story) was held up by a group of locals. Kelley discovered their real concern was that other churches, still standing, were getting no attention. So he helped get a Getty grant and start another project, restoring the Church of Our Savior of Berestove, also in Kiev.

Preserving wooden churches

A lot of Kelley's most recent international work is on wooden churches. Many of them are located in southern Poland, eastern Slovakia and western Ukraine, an area of abundant forests where wood was the primary building material.

"Wood won't last forever," notes Kelley, "no matter what you do. You have to keep the water and moisture out as long as possible. And [the wood] is attacked by rot (fungi) and insects."

In the 1970s, the Russians tried "nuking the buildings with chemicals," he notes. "They got sickâ€"what kills the bugs is poison, obviously."

Sometimes the wood can be replaced. In some areas, old growth forests still exist, and similar wood can replace the original logs.

Last year, Kelley consulted on the restoration of a number of Greek Catholic wood log churchesâ€"27 in eastern Slovakia and four in southeastern Poland.

"The churches are in various states of disrepair," says Kelley. He took two trips, visiting churches and coordinating a workshop that brought together local and international experts. In spite of all the technical difficulties, money is the major problem.

"The churches are in villages but people aren't staying. They're moving to cities. And with the collapse of the socialist states, there's no money," he explains.

Kelley pushed the idea of setting up non-governmental, secular organizations to apply for grants and other money, modeled off the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation here (he's on the UTRF board).

"They resisted at first but I said, 'It's in my home town, at Unity Temple,'" he says. Both the Slovak and Polish groups are taking his advice now. They've even hired a grant writer.

With all the magnificent structures he's helped save around the world, Kelley insists he has no favorites.

"I like them all," he says. "It's not so much the buildings as the people. I've made a lot of friends."

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