Old Traditions, Modern Tools Mark the Work of Today’s Stonemason

Matt Bodner: Stonemason who worked on the reconstruction of King Edward School, tackles the rough work of restoration.

In late February, cSPACE completed its heritage restoration project at the historic King Edward School. This work substantiates our commitment to maintaining the historic school and its important legacy as a prominent landmark in South Calgary and unique cultural tourism asset for the city.

Today we are featuring the work of Matt Bodner, Stonemason, who was brought on to do the restoration work.  Matt has done some incredible work to revitalize the home of cSPACE King Edward. We are grateful for the dedication and skill he brings to keeping these stone walls in tip top shape. 

Matt Bodner is a bona-fide stonemason. It sounds like a job somebody’s grandfather would have had. And indeed, it is. Matt was inspired to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who have all been stonemasons. It’s a challenging job. A lot of days it’s just exhausting physical labour. Being self-employed means that he is constantly bidding on and competing for work. For Matt the challenge is worth it, if it means he can restore life to these beautiful buildings that carry the weight of the city’s history with them. 

In the course of running his own business, Matt has worked on over 30 sandstone buildings, mostly in Calgary, but some farther afield. Within Calgary, he has done restoration work on such notable landmarks as City Hall, Knox United Church, and Lougheed House. Many of his projects have been on other historical schools, Colonel Walker School, Balmoral School, and the old King Edward School — now the home of cSPACE. 

From Demolition to Restoration

Matt’s involvement with cSPACE goes back to the beginning. He worked on the original demolition of parts of the old King Edward School that needed to go in order to keep the building structurally sound, clean it up, and make it suitable for its new purpose. Some of this work included taking out part of the wall on the East Wing of the building to make room for the coffee shop where Aroma Cafe now does a brisk business. A massive steel lintel was installed to hold up the masonry above it. On the other side of the building, Matt was involved in restoring the area where a historic wing of the school was removed in 1978 due to structural failure. The reconstructed wall has now been incorporated into the redevelopment as an interior feature wall. Unique carved crests that reference the King and Queen of England complete the feature. The wall runs up from the ground of the Studio Theatre, all the way through the co-working space on the third floor. The crest can be seen on the part of the wall inside the co-working space; the crown with a maple leaf in it that is now protected from the elements and will last a hundred more years. 

 “This is a pretty significant historical place in Calgary. You don’t find anything like this in new construction.”

After the restoration of the building, there was still a good deal of work to do to clean up the sandstone that had suffered the effects of weather and school children for over a century. There were places that required patches, graffiti that had been scratched into the walls, and many areas showed signs of efflorescence – extreme salt damage. But Matt was hooked.  

One of Matt’s biggest challenges in freshening up cSPACE’s sandstone was to combat the damage caused by efflorescence. Throughout much of the city’s history, the salt used to melt ice on the streets and around buildings was not very eco-friendly. It can cause thick white stains that mar the colour and character of the stone. These white waves and streaks can also cause the sandstone to flake and disintegrate over time. Matt’s technique to restore the lustre of the stone is to scale all the salt off with sandpaper, all the while keeping the stone wet with a sponge. He then uses a carborundum wheel on a low-speed grinder to take out some of the space of the stone. The goal is to take out enough so the colour of the stone matches, but not so much that you take out chunks that do more noticeable damage.

Matt works on removing efflorescence from salt-damaged stone.

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Although Matt uses grinders, power tools, and power hammers to do fixes, he also approaches the job with care. This is delicate work. Cleaning efflorescence or removing deep scratches involves scraping layers off of the stone, and “once you’ve done that the face of the stone is gone forever.” Matt reinforces that the goal is to restore the building, but not too much. “We’re not trying to remove the age of the building.” It’s important to “keep the character but just…remove any malicious messages scratched in over time.”

Scratches collected over 100 years are ground out or patched.

Finding the right piece for the puzzle is tricky

Some stuff that can’t get cleaned out has to get patched. Successful patching is more difficult. It depends on finding a new piece of sandstone that matches the old one. It requires finding certain sizes, intact, with a decent grain. Finding a good match for a stone patch means digging around in different excavations, walking around rock piles. This is the tough part for most people. Less so for Matt, who has a knack for finding secret rock piles. 

“Everything here is Paskapoo sandstone – that’s the name of the geological formation and it comes from Porcupine Hills just south of here. Paskapoo is the name of the runoff from the mountains that comes down here. Most of ours came from right around Calgary, but you can’t get it anymore, unless you’re like me.” 

Matt is committed to this type of work. He feels a strong desire to honour the stonemason’s work that went before him. Building a structure out of sandstone a hundred years ago meant a level of community involvement and dedication that is difficult to imagine. 

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“Oh, it’s a piece of history, for sure! I have an appreciation for how much work went into it, I think. Like wow, this was a real undertaking. Like if you were trying to build this, they didn’t have forklifts, and they didn’t have steel scaffold frames, this was a lot from everyone. They would have had blacksmiths… chisels and everything else. They would have had carpenters building the scaffolds. Masons. They probably had horses and strange pulley systems, you know. Probably the odd car, but a lot of this stuff, they would have quarried it close to the river, used kind of a little barge, barge it down the river to wherever they could, and then get the material here, and it’s a ton of work.”

Looking at the bones of the old King Edward School now, Matt is reflective. “I think it looks really good now…It all looks clean, and it’s kind of a clean slate.” 

No stonemason is an island…

This was a collaborative effort between Contractor, cSPACE and Heritage planner to proactively complete the work in maintaining this designated Municipal Historic Resource. Thanks to the City of Calgary, and the Galvin Family Foundation, for committing support to maintaining this historic landmark of cSPACE King Edward through the Heritage incentive Reserve Grant program.

Of course, no project is ever truly complete. Luckily, Matt will be ready to come back when the timing is right. “I hope to have a nice, long-lasting relationship with cSPACE here.”

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