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A Conversation with Perry Arlia

Perry Arlia is a mason specializing in the repair of decorative terra cotta. Arlia, who works for Americo Construction, lives near Washington, Pa. His handiwork was recently unveiled on the faça;ade of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's Baum Building.

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How do you fix terra cotta?

[After pressure-washing,] you have to prep your hole, and then you mix up what we call a slurry coat. It's a prime coat. Put the primer on, and then you start building the repair mortar out.

 

So you don't use molds?

No. If I'm repairing it, I just build onto it and make it look like it's supposed to. These in the center here are fans, and that's a shield. Well, I rebuilt one of the fans, the top of the fan was busted off. Just build it out, and once the repair mortar starts to harden, then you start shaving it back real slow, just kinda sculpt it, till you get back where you're supposed to be.

 

Are your tools like sculptor's tools?

Yeah, you get a couple sculpting tools, but I have a spoon -- like a tablespoon -- that I cut and shaved down on one side. You see these leaves, the lower leaves, how they turn out[ward]? The big leaves at the very top of the columns, I had to rebuild a couple, they were busted off. So to get underneath there and cut that out, I got a tablespoon, I shaved it down, and I was up on the scaffold with a grinder and a little file, cutting and shaving. You make your own tools, kinda, that work for the application.

 

How time-consuming is it?

One section, about a one-foot square, to rebuild those leaves at the top of the columns, I got 16 hours in.

 

Pittsburgh has a lot of 100-year-old terra cotta.

At that time they were all handmade, all the ornate work. There was a mold, they were all hand-packed. In the backs of these terra cotta, when you take it off, you actually see the fingerprints of the guys that packed the molds.

 

How'd you end up in this line?

I was a bricklayer for 28 years. Still am. I've been a union bricklayer for 25 years. My dad was a mason. I learned the trade off of him. Mostly commercial and industrial, with the steel mills around here. I was what you call a connection man, where the pipes joined each other: Lay brick in there and weave the brick in there and all the connections. Then in '97 I got hurt at Edgar Thomson Works, and I just didn't fully recover enough to go back to the trade, laying brick all the time. And, I always kinda liked a little bit of ... I think I had a little artistic talent in me, you know? This, with the repairs, I picked it up and it's been good.

 

Is matching the colors difficult with terra cotta?

This building, very early on it was a theater, and when they changed it into offices, the infill of the tile was added on 15 years later. So if you look at it, the fluted columns are more white, and the infills are almost like a buff color. Then the tiles through the years, through just atmospheric contaminants and whatnot. Your carbons from the mills, it did discolor it a little, so it's real hard to match a building like this.

 

Do people still make architectural terra cotta tiles?

You can get them made. The tile that's stuck on the building, it was great when they were building the buildings, but it's heavy. So as it deteriorates -- that building's a hundred years old -- you have to replace it. Now what do you replace it with, more heavy tile? Now they're casting things out of fiberglass, and you can't tell the difference ...

 

Let's see some of your work.
This is one of the better buildings I've worked on. The ornate work on it. This one, see there's a vertical joint, that one piece of tile, then the vertical joint over here? It looks like it was just newly pointed up? Well, that rounded piece that's in the center, that was gone, the whole thing was gone. I rebuilt it, then we took and cut it out and put a mortar joint in there to look like the original tile. That one was built, and then ... it's a little hard for me to pick them out! I'm almost positive, it was the one next to it. It looks like the tile!

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