This could be a story about a local specialty contractor that has survived the recession because it is owned and run by a woman and gets by largely on its status as a small business enterprise.
But that would not do justice to the real story behind the success of Denver’s Building Restoration Specialties Inc.
BRS is a registered MBE/WBE/SBE firm but thrives because it has been serving the local restoration market since the mid-1980s and does difficult, detailed brick-and-stone work with the quality craftsmanship of a Renaissance artisan.
Located in Denver’s Lower Downtown (LoDo) neighborhood, BRS specializes in masonry restoration and conservation of historic buildings and employs more than 30 full-time skilled craftsmen who work on state Capitols, municipal buildings and civic landmarks to remove decades of damage and grime and return them to their historic youth.
The firm’s best-known projects include Denver’s City and County Building, Civic Center Park, the Routt County Courthouse, Georgetown Schoolhouse and Trent Hall at Johnson & Wales University in Denver—to name a few.
And, the company is led on a day-to-day basis by a woman, Rhonda Maas, who is also one of its co-founders, along with her former husband, who is no longer part of the firm.
Maas, 46, has a family construction background, having worked with her stepfather in his painting and paper-hanging business and learned to pour concrete with her father. Her work ethic was honed on the family farm in Missouri, where, she says, “My job was to milk the damn cow.” But the farm, she says, taught her “how to sweat and how to work hard.”
She intentionally did not take typing and home economics courses in high school because she did not want to be pushed into traditional female occupations. “I have always refused to believe that women are the weaker sex,” she says.
Maas—a self-described “animal lover” who allows her son Jared’s 1-year-old parrot Pickles the run of the office during the day—dropped out of vet school and began to learn the masonry trade working weekends for extra cash. It soon evolved into a full-time job and then a career, when BRS was founded in 1986. She now runs the company with her brother Bart Baker, who shares the bidding tasks and does hands-on project management.
BRS, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, completed its first loft job in the late 1980s—Silver Square at 35th and Blake streets—then worked on the Edbrooke Lofts for Denver developer Dana Crawford before LoDo’s boom years after the completion of Coors Field.
“The early loft jobs gave us experience, helped us fine-tune our craft,” Maas says. She estimates that BRS has “had its hands on” more than 80% of the buildings in LoDo, stripping old paint, exposing historic brick facades and rejuvenating masonry features, windows and entrances. “We have the technical expertise and a passion for (historic) accuracy that helps us land high-profile restoration work,” she says.
BRS was a key part of the team hired by the Colorado Dept. of Transportation in 2011 to restore several of the historic coke ovens in Redstone, Colo. The ovens were originally built around 1900 to produce coke for the growing steel industry in Pueblo. But the 200-or-so ovens, shaped like beehives scattered along Highway 133, were crumbling from decades of neglect and in danger of being demolished.
BRS salvaged bricks and cut them to fit, replacing the faded pink bricks with yellow ones—closer to their original color—and completely refurbished four of the ovens while stabilizing more than 50 others. The project resurrected a key piece of the state’s history in the Crystal River Valley.
“It was very meticulous, tricky work,” Maas says. “But that’s the kind we enjoy and what we do best.” The project received national accolades and media coverage, including a story in The New York Times.
Among the firm’s other high-profile restorations were repairs to the Denver City and County Building and Civic Center Park, funded by the Better Denver Bond Program.
BRS helped restore Civic Center’s historic Greek Theater, Voorhies Memorial, balustrade wall and Broadway Terrace. The columns of the memorial at the north end of the park had been stained by water runoff, graffiti and etching from power-washing equipment. BRS meticulously selected the most-effective cleaning solutions, and in some cases, carefully resurfaced the stone to release old stains, remove graffiti and provide a clean face to the structure.
The park’s original rails and balusters were carved out of veined sandstone from the shuttered Turkey Creek quarry near Ft. Carson. In restoring the balustrade, BRS replaced sandstone with sandstone to maintain the integrity of the original masonry work. Maas had her crews search salvage yards to find sandstone from the original Turkey Creek quarry or stone that matched the composition and properties of the original materials used.
In the Greek Theater, BRS retained the herringbone design created by existing maroon, red and brown bricks. Crews saw-cut around each paver and carefully hand chiseled them to avoid breakage, cleaned and numbered each of them by location so they could be reinstalled in the right pattern. The painstaking care earned the project a national award from Masonry Construction magazine.
At the Denver City and County Building, BRS erected scaffolding on the roof and around the clock tower so the tower stones and clock glass could be restored. Crews re-polished the decorative marble panels at the top corners of the east and west elevations, preserving and restoring them to their original colors.
As part of that restoration, BRS has removed the building’s granite steps and installed a waterproof membrane to protect the basement vaults from water infiltration before replacing them in time for the inauguration of Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.
The project also involved repairs to the building’s exterior stone, cleaning it and removing deteriorated mortar. The mortar joints were re-pointed to prevent leaks and damage, using a custom-mixed mortar to match the formula used in the original construction. “Using comparable materials is necessary whenever possible to retain historical integrity,” Maas says.
BRS is currently working on repairs to the City’s historic McNichols Building and cleaning up damage to Civic Center Park from the recent 4/20 and Occupy Denver protests, helping the City get ready for a series of upcoming events in the park, including the Cinco de Mayo celebration.
While BRS has built its reputation and business model on doing difficult masonry repairs, it is also mindful of the evolving needs of the marketplace and has created a new masonry division to complement its restoration work—and the new construction side of the house is growing. “We can build them new as well as fix them,” Maas says. “New or old, we always want to give owners the next 100-year product.”