Written By Brett Levine
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Expertise can be found in the most unexpected places, and the skills and abilities Jürgen Tarrasch brings to the historic restoration and conservation of the Thomas Jefferson Tower in downtown Birmingham are a case in point. Best known as a fine artist, many in the city would be astounded to know that Tarrasch is in fact a master in the restoration of frescoes, decorative plasterwork, and other related historic materials.
Characteristically humble, he actually trained at the European Center for Conservation and Historic Preservation in Venice, Italy, after receiving a grant to study in the program for stucco marmorino, stuccolustro, and fresco. This formed the foundation of a highly successful career in Europe, one that he had not imagined would provide him with opportunities in Birmingham.
Then, of course, fate intervened. “I was driving home one afternoon from teaching painting at Birmingham-Southern,” Tarrasch begins, “and I noticed the decorative terracotta on the façade of the hotel. It occurred to me,” he pauses, “that there was likely to be some decorative plasterwork on the interior, and I wondered if they might be planning to restore it.” Literally the next day, Tarrasch, the mild-mannered artist, walked onto the job site and knocked on the trailer. “I asked for the supervisor and was referred to Tom Dill. I asked him if there was any decorative plasterwork inside,” Tarrasch says with a smile. “He hesitated for a moment, then said, ‘Actually, there is, and they’re looking for someone to restore it right now.’”
Of course it was not as simple as it sounds. To prove his abilities, one of the building’s representatives, Alex Dzyuba, provided Tarrasch with a portion of one of the historic interior’s decorative plaster capitals embellished with a lion motif. “This was probably the single most difficult piece to reproduce,” Tarrasch explains, “so I imagine they wanted to see if I could do it.” He did, and they were both impressed, and satisfied. Convinced he was up to the task, the real work could begin. In April 2016, it did.
“It is hard to imagine just how committed the owners are to the historic preservation and restoration of the building,” Tarrasch says. “Some of the plasterwork, like what is in the ground floor lobby, actually consists of five separate sections: it has a palm frond motif, a tulip motif, a fruit basket motif, and two additional elements, just to piece together one section. In some spaces, there was only a single piece of plaster to work with.” Dzyuba even recounted an instance in which building workers literally sifted through a waste bin filled with plaster to salvage enough of a balustrade that could be pieced together so Tarrasch could construct the rest.
So far, Tarrasch estimates he has created 14 different molds that can be infinitely recast to create just the proper amount of material. “How we work here is that we retain as much of the original decorative plasterwork as is humanly possible,” he explains. “Then we section out anything that cannot be retained and literally piece a replacement section back in.” This attention to detail means that a great deal of the building’s original ornamentation was actually preserved, but what is even more remarkable is that it becomes impossible to separate what Tarrasch has constructed and what he began with. He attributes part of this success to a dedicated team, including the delicate painting skills of Mary Archibald. “We’ve worked back over the layers of time to figure out what the original paint scheme would have been,” Tarrasch says, “and it is surprisingly subtle given how grand this building was. We’re actually brushing everything back with a dry brush, seeing what needs to be repaired, doing any modifications, then hand painting to an original color scheme.” It simply has to be seen to be believed.
When the building opens, visitors, guests, and residents will have no idea the lengths to which care had been taken to preserve one of the great gems of Alabama architecture were it not for plans to include information and historic photographs as part of the fabric of the building. But to truly see the love and attention to detail, all one will have to do is look up—or around—because on many ceilings, or around many doors, there will be decorative plaster embellishments of fruit and flowers, ropes, fleur-de-lis, and bold lions, all celebrating the place where the traditional meets the modern. And in every instance the skills and abilities of Jürgen Tarrasch, Birmingham’s own master craftsman, will have turned his eye, and his attention to detail, in to salvaging and celebrating the history of Thomas Jefferson Tower through its story told in decorative plasterwork. And, thanks to Jürgen Tarrasch, a dedicated team, and visionary builders and owners committed to creating a gem, what a tale it is.