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Recent restoration of Tallman House making Janesville’s jewel shine again

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ROCHELLE B. BIRKELO
November 19, 2011
— Restoring a historic structure such as the Tallman House isn’t like fixing up a three-bedroom ranch.

You can’t buy many of the parts at the hardware store, and you can’t hire just anyone to make the repairs.


“Knowing whom to work with is an extra element involved with historic preservation,” said Gary Gilbank of Gilbank Construction, Clinton.


Gilbank has enlisted a group with special skills for restoration work under way at the Tallman House.


Work is projected to cost about $750,000. The city of Janesville is paying all but $81,000, which is being covered by the Rock County Historical Society. Work started in June and should be done this month, said Joel Van Haaften, Rock County Historical Society executive director.


The project involves redoing everything above the brick walls, including the roof, frieze, soffits, gutters, cupola and chimneys.


The city of Janesville owns the house that the historical society operates it as a museum.


“There are sizable repairs needed to the Tallman House, most of which has been neglected over the years because restoration costs are very expensive,’’ Van Haaften said.


Janesville restoration specialist Ron Sutterlin, Milwaukee architect Kevin Donahue, and iron sculptor and UW-Whitewater graduate Carol Herzig of Janesville shared insight about their restoration work.


Ron Sutterlin

Sutterlin said the coolest aspect for him was replicating the finial on top of the cupola. He used old growth timber—400-year-old wood he had salvaged from other projects through the years—to create a replica that is within one-quarter inch of the original.


Sutterlin enlisted:


-- Janesville native Jim Ramsdell to carve architectural leaves from duck decoy white wood to encircle the mid-section of the finial.


-- Janesville resident Don Hess to turn the spire and other “curvy stuff” at the base of the spire.


-- Ralph McNeil, Janesville, to hammer and solder a lead sheet around the cone-shaped midsection of the finial.


Sutterlin removed and restored 35 wooden brackets—each with six appliquéd cast metal ornamental designs—while Gilbank carpenters rebuilt three of the brackets with whatever original wood they could use.


“It was fun to create a nice, clean crisp look because over the years paint had built up on them,” he said.


Even after 30 years of restoration experience, Sutterlin marvels at the craftsmanship of the Tallman House.


“We have something very unique here. This is a time capsule and probably one of the finest examples in the entire Midwest of this Italianate style,” he said.


Kevin Donahue

Donahue said the masonry of the five-story Italian villa-style mansion is superb, showing quality and aesthetic perfection beyond the manufacturing processes of the time.


“Someone knew what they were doing when they built this, and it’s very unusual for the Midwest to have all these different factors—gauged bricks, tuck-pointing and colored mortar—together,” Donahue said.


Donahue was fascinated by what he found on a 2-by-3-foot piece of the house’s 156-year-old tin-coated iron roof that has been repaired through the years but never replaced until now.


“When you flip it over and look at the underside, you’d swear it was made yesterday,” he said.


That’s because builders at the time understood how the material worked and built a roof system that allowed the roof to dry and breathe on the top and bottom, Donahue said.


The new roof is made of finished steel with the appearance of the original roof and it’s barn red color, he said.


Carol Herzig

Herzig volunteered 50 hours to make sand molds of iron flourishes from the home’s windows and brackets so new ones could be cast at Baker Manufacturing in Evansville.


“Getting back in the sculpture lab was a lot of fun, but I’m scraped, scratched and bruised,” she said.


Each half of the largest mold contained 150 pounds of sand and resin.


“When you put the molds together, they weigh 300 pounds,” Herzig said.


Jenny Weishar, a sculpture major at UW-Whitewater, helped Herzig lift and mix 100-pound bags of sand.


Herzig duplicated three original pieces—a tulip shape, a pineapple and long string of leaves. A piece from the pineapple was broken, so she had to repair it before she could make its mold.


“When you spend that many hours making the molds and have them poured, when you unmold them—if everything has taken and poured properly—it’s like childbirth,” she said.


“Even though the process is the same for each mold, sometimes there’s just something that doesn’t work,” Herzig said. “But when it all works, it’s incredible.”


Van Haaften said the Tallman House is one of the most important historic sites in Janesville.


“We are trying to make it shine again,’’ he said.



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