Architecture and Preservation

As construction continues on the Gaillard Auditorium's structural skeleton, a more visible part of its architecture is taking shape about 725 miles away.

Just outside Bloomington, Ind., a team of craftsmen with the Bybee Stone Co. are carving the project's 63 full-round and pilaster capitals and other ornamental pieces.

The $142 million Gaillard renovation will feature 24,000 cubic feet, or 1,500 tons, of variegated Indiana limestone.

How much is that? If spread evenly on top of an NBA basketball court, the pile would be more than five feet tall.

Bybee has about a half dozen carvers currently at work on the Gaillard. Stonecutters and lathers are preparing blocks for the carvers, who use chisels, air hammers and pneumatic tools to finish them.

“It takes quite a few years to learn how to do,” says company president Will Bybee. “For some of these guys, it takes seven to eight years to go through the whole process to be considered a top-paid, top-of-the-line carver.”

It's not a matter of strength, but practice.

“You're running an 8-inch air hammer most of the time with a chisel mounted at the end,” Bybee says. “You've got to have a certain amount of strength, yes, but your size doesn't dictate whether you can do this job.'

There are hardly ever any stones abandoned because of an errant tap on the chisel. Bybee says the training to become a journeyman stone carver is so long in part “so you don't make those mistakes.”

The biggest challenge carvers face is being able to envision the end product in three dimensions.

“You have to see it as whatever you're trying to cut or carve,” he says. The work begins with models and drawings, but the craftsmen still must transpose these into stone.

“We always ask if that's all the information we're being given,” Bybee says. “We sometimes ask for artistic license because you have to have that if you're not going to show all the details of what you're talking about.”

Clay models are the best bet for clients who want to minimize any such license given to carvers, though two-dimensional drawings often can produce the same result.

“It's hard to say whether you get it exactly right because everybody's opinion is different,” Bybee says. “This is art.”

The Gaillard isn't the company's only job in South Carolina at the moment. Its carvers also are working on life-sized statues of Mary, Peter and Paul for St. Paul and the Apostles, a Catholic church in Spartanburg.

“When you talk about carving, it's usually something artistic, depending on whether it's a Corinthian capital, a relief carving of a person and a mule, a full-size sculpture of Mary, a pilaster or capital with a state tree on it, so there's no way of saying one's more difficult,” Bybee says. “They're all about the same as far as what we have to do to get the job finished.”

Bybee has been working on carving the Gaillard's most decorative pieces and will transition into cutting other pieces for its main entrances. Some of those pieces will weigh as much as six tons.

A mock-up of them is expected to be installed soon at the Gaillard site.

Bybee has 71 employees, and for them, the Gaillard is a medium-large project.

They also have worked on the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville and the Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas, which also were designed by the Gaillard's architect, David M. Schwartz.

Craig Williams, project manager with David M. Schwartz Architects, says the lighter color of Indiana limestone makes these buildings more inviting than they would be if built from a darker stone.

“Indiana limestone is the best there is in terms of durability, strength, reasonable cost and appearance,” he says.

The Gaillard's base course, about three feet from the ground, will be laid with granite from Quebec.

Williams says Bybee is one of about three companies able to tackle such a large carving project. While the architects didn't select Bybee, the contractors did, he says the company has had a “fantastic” record for craftsmanship and for staying on schedule.

“Most of the craftsman love to work on challenging stuff and rise to the occasion,” Williams says. “It gives them an opportunity to shine.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.