Bridge Reconstruction – A ‘Sig’nificant Success

The Thorsen House, one of the ‘Ultimate Bungalows’ designed by Greene & Greene, masters of the Arts & Crafts, was built in 1910 and owned by the Thorsen family for thirty-three years.  Sigma Phi has owned this marvelous property for seventy-five years.  Time has taken its toll and Sigma Phi has been constantly challenged to maintain its architectural landmark.  This article recounts how Sigma Phi succeeded in overcoming the most serious threat to its occupancy of the Sig House in those seventy-five years.

Three years ago, Sigma Phi was confronted by the City of Berkeley in the aftermath of the tragic balcony collapse, in June 2015, at a downtown apartment building where several students died.  The City issued an edict that all balconies in multi-unit residential dwellings must be inspected and necessary repairs made.  That included Sigma Phi’s bridge between the building and garage which had badly decayed and shored up on temporary supports for nearly a decade.

Previous estimates by experienced preservation-related contractors had placed the probable cost at over $500,000 (exclusive of ‘soft costs’).  Despite the daunting cost estimate the Board of Directors hired Thomas Saxby, I’78 to prepare plans and specifications for the needed work.  In addition to the requirement of obtaining a building permit from the City, Sigma Phi also had to obtain the approval of California Preservation Foundation (CPF), the entity that holds the Historic Façade Easement which enables contributions to Sigma Phi’s building fund as tax deductible for donors.  The easement agreement mandates conformance to historic conservation standards.

While Tom was preparing the plans and obtaining all necessary approvals, the Board went to work raising funds.  Scott Sinclair I’74 generously offered to match all donations up to $100,000 and Doug Kari, I’75 took on the responsibility for the overall fund-raising effort.  Over a period of six months Doug was able to raise over $100,000 as well as substantial commitments for routine dues contributions.  Eventually $229,000 of contributions flowed to the treasury of the Alpha from the Sigma Phi Educational Foundation (SPEF), which is the conduit for tax deductible donations.  Meanwhile Tim Moran, I ’76 stepped up to manage the construction work.  Tim expressed confidence to the Board that the work could be completed for a much lower cost than the preservation contractors had estimated, and the board entered into an agreement with Tim. 

This represented a tremendous leap of faith.  Any kind of renovation project is fraught with discovery of unknowns and inevitable ‘scope creep’.  This inherent risk was elevated given the unique nature of the Thorsen House construction, the insidious nature of ‘dry rot’ decay, and preservation-mandated standards.  There were differences of opinion and serious debate (the First Charge was undoubtedly invoked), but much was at stake and the Board knew it had to take action. 

In the Spring of 2016 Tim Moran commenced the work with a highly skilled and talented carpenter, Jose Aguas, and the bridge was deconstructed carefully so as to preserve historic material for documentation and assessment for possible reuse (very little proved salvageable).  Tom Saxby provided ongoing architectural services while Dell Hutchinson, I’71 and Jerry Barclay, I’71, provided project oversight and liaison between the Board – represented by Alumni President Steven Walraven I’08 and Moses Cesario, I’89 - and the project team.  The following are the highlights of the work:

  • Temporary support of the overhanging 2-story building structure to allow removal of a decayed main structural post and subsequent replacement.

  • Custom milling of quality timbers to conform to the specific dimensions of the deck structure and its highly architectural railing system.

  • Careful onsite tooling of all wood members to replicate the rounded ends and edges of each piece as per the original design.

  • Use of specialized metal connectors to replicate the original mortise and tenon construction, and their concealment.

  • Reconstruction of the bridge; a process significantly more difficult than the original ground up because of retrofitting restrictions and logistics.

  • Improved anchorage connection of posts to the foundation.

  • Careful staining and sealing of the new wood to protect it and blend in with the original building.

  • Copper sheet metal flashing and gutter replacement, as well as application of high-performance waterproofing to bridge deck surface to ensure longevity.

  • Removal, repair, and re-installation of the fire escape.

In addition to the above work many other related repairs and improvements were accomplished including a handicap ramp through the service court and a new sewer pipe connecting to the City main sewer in Piedmont Avenue – both of which the City required as part of the building permit.  All the work was inspected by the City and the permit has received a final sign off.

The bridge project cost came in at approximately $260,000 – an enormous savings from contractor estimates!  This included construction costs of $203,000 and ‘soft costs’ for permits, architect services, and other expenses.  One of the actives, Michael Bustillo Sakhai I’15, worked the summer as a hired hand, and the actives at large were very helpful and supportive of the project.  This project demonstrates that the Alumni Association, with the help of key members, can accomplish maintenance and restoration work in a very efficient and cost-effective manner - as long as there is adequate financial support.

The bridge project has been a catalyst for getting other work done as well, such as the long-delayed completion of the rear yard fence and repairs to the Greenhouse window/doors. 

Had the work not been accomplished the City of Berkeley would surely have taken steps to interrupt our occupancy and use of the building; and CPF had threatened actions to enforce the easement agreement (requiring the repairs).  It was a serious situation.  All Sigs who contributed money, time, expertise, and support deserve a big round of snaps! 

The “Teakwood Towers” have become part of the Alpha of California DNA.  It is imperative that the society continue to rise to the challenge of performing deferred maintenance and continuous diligence.  Work that was identified as needed during the restoration of 1978 but deferred for lack of funds must be addressed soon.  The Board of Directors has demonstrated it can achieve great results when there is alumni support. 

The following Sigs, amongst many, stand out for their donations and service:

  • Scott Sinclair

  • Doug Kari

  • Jim Morrison

  • The Rocca Family

  • Dick and Roy Melbye

  • Mark Patterson

  • Dan McNear (Treasurer of the Board plus personal donations and loans)

  • Steven Walraven

  • Work-related effort:

  • Tim Moran

  • Tom Saxby

  • Jerry Barclay

  • Dell Hutchinson

  • Moses Cesario

  • Ted Bosley

On December 5, 2018, CPF conducted its annual inspection of the house and property.  The meeting was successful as there was acceptance of the bridge and other repair work, and appreciation was expressed for the quality of the work and dedication to purpose.   CPF pointed out that Sigma Phi has not yet complied with prior requests for the 10-year Maintenance Plan, which is stipulated in the Easement Agreement.  They will emphasize enforcement of this requirement in the coming year.  This will be amongst the next challenges for the Alpha and the Board.

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