Originally published in Castine Patriot, August 3, 2017 and Island Ad-Vantages, August 3, 2017 and The Weekly Packet, August 3, 2017
Local voices, national history: Robert Baird, landmarks in cast iron
Historical Arts & Casting, Inc. foundry creates the cast-iron pieces for the Capitol Dome and other projects.
by Anne Berleant
Preserving history may be mired in detail and meticulousness rather than excitement, but restoring nearly 50,000 pounds of cast iron ornaments and fixtures 288 feet high on the United States Capitol Dome in Washington, D.C. would appear to combine both.
“Every day I watched the sun rise and the sun set from the Capitol Building,” Brooklin resident Robert Baird, of Historical Arts & Casting, Inc., said from his office, graced by little more than a drafting table and a desk. “It was like walking in history every single day.”
Baird spent three years leading a crew of preservationists and craftsmen on the restoration project as vice president of operations for HACI, a Utah-based family architectural and ornamental metalwork company founded in 1974.
The Capitol Dome was a project for which “we trained our whole lives,” Baird blogged after the November 2016 ceremony celebrating the completed restoration, but it was only the latest in a line of landmark historical restoration projects HACI has been integrally involved in. These include restoring the metalwork, ticket windows and chandeliers in New York City’s Grand Central Station, the bridges and obelisk in Central Park, all the outdoor furniture at the Statue of Liberty, and Salt Lake City’s ZCMI store.
Casting new ornaments and fixtures means first documenting the part in the field with detailed drawings and then creating a pattern from those drawings that can be molded in sand. The patterns are either made by HACI staff or modeled on the computer, and then cut on a CNC (computer numerical control) machine or printed on a 3D printer. The hot work in the foundry comes later.
“The goal of historical restoration is to save as much of the original cast iron as possible,” Baird said. “The only things we replaced [on the Capitol Dome] were broken or missing.” Pieces unable to be repaired were melted down and cast into a new part, “retaking” the historical material.
The Capitol Dome was built in 1855-1866, one of the earliest cast iron structures in the United States, Baird noted, and is actually two separate domes, interior and exterior, tied together with large, iron trusses. The Dome’s total weight is 8,909,200 pounds and measures 199 feet in height from skirt to the Base of Freedom. The near-50,000 pounds of cast iron were used to replicate broken or missing ornamental and other key elements of the dome, Baird said. The pieces were hoisted up and replaced by Baird’s team of classically trained architects,
historical preservationists and men with metalworking experience, all of whom had to undergo security clearance.
“I trained a whole new crew,” Baird said, “Eleven guys who had never worked on a cast iron building before.”
One of the surprises of working nearly 300 feet in the air, Baird said, was the amount of wildlife he and his crew encountered, such as bald eagles, red foxes, and hawks. “Someone chased a raccoon up to the top of the dome and there was nowhere for it to go,” he said. One hawk “lived and worked” near Baird’s crew. “You’d come to work and see the bones of a dead fish next to you on the scaffolding.”
Historical Arts & Casting, Inc. began in Salt Lake City, Utah, when Robert Baird’s father, preservation architect Steven Baird, was hired to restore the commercial ZCMI building’s cast iron facade in the early 1970s and found a lack of iron foundries doing historical casting. Baird and his brothers, Robert and David, “had all been involved in metalwork and fabrication, Baird said. “I actually started fabricating metal in seventh grade. I was intrigued with the metalwork on these old buildings my dad worked on.”
Later, Baird received a degree in management and marketing, and worked for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in Washington, D.C. The three brothers took over HACI from their father in 1987, with Richard as president, David as vice president of manufacturing, and Robert as vice president of operations. Richard and David are headquartered in Utah, at the company’s physical site.
“Historical Arts & Castings, Inc. really did projects for my dad,” Baird said. “When he retired in 1994, we just kept going.”
Baird first began coming to Brooklin in the early 1990s, and in 1997 bought a sailboat and had it sent to Brooklin to be restored. Baird and HACI have done metalwork for boat builders on the Peninsula, including the Brooklin Boat Yard.
He and his wife moved to Brooklin full time after the Capitol Dome project was completed.
“We just kept coming back,” he said. “I moved here because of the community and because of wooden boats,” he said. “It’s a funny thing. Now all of my kids moved here.”