Architectural firm in Winston-Salem finds the stories behind the buildings

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Architect Joe Oppermann's firm has worked on historical restorations in North Carolina and around the country, including the Miles Brewton House in Charleston, S.C. (right). (David Rolfe/Journal)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Joe Oppermann and the rest of the team at his architectural firm in Winston-Salem sometime wear several hats when it comes to finding and telling the stories behind buildings, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

“A lot of what we do is building archeology, meaning that we go in and we look at the way the building is made,” Oppermann said.

His team looks at saw marks, as well as the type of nails, screws, paints and mortars, among other things, used in the construction of buildings.

“Just like an archeologist digs in a site, takes material and can date what period things are from, we do the same with buildings,” Oppermann said.

His firm, Joseph K. Oppermann – Architect P.A., specializes in the research, documentation, analysis, conservation, restoration and adaptation of historic buildings and sites. It is one of only a few architectural firms in the country that focus exclusively on historical architecture. The firm borrows a lot of investigative tools and technologies from various disciplines, including land surveying and art conservation.

Sometimes, Oppermann finds help in the most unlikely of sources. While providing services for the Miles Brewton House built between 1765-69 in Charleston, S.C., he savaged fragments of wallpaper and plaster wallpaper borders from rats’ nests to help replicate old wallpapers and borders in the home.

His firm does projects for clients throughout the country, but primarily east of the Mississippi.

It’s not unusual for the firm to work for many years and in phases on projects. Oppermann has provided services for a church in Charleston, S.C., for 22 years.

Joseph K. Oppermann – Architect just finished work on a pathway project at The Hermitage, a National Historic Landmark and the home of President Andrew Jackson in Nashville, Tenn.

“Joe Oppermann has come into our site and really helped us determine what we needed to do to preserve this National Historic Landmark site,” said Tony Guzzi, the vice president for preservation and site operations at The Hermitage.

The architectural firm has done five phases of work over the years at The Hermitage, including Jackson’s two-story brick mansion; a brick kitchen and smokehouse; two early log houses; Alfred’s Cabin, where former slave Alfred Jackson lived until his death in 1901; and the tomb where Jackson and his wife, Rachel, are buried.

Guzzi said that Oppermann and his associates work well together as a team and with the owners of historical resources.

“They come in and they work very well in doing an assessment and making sure that they consider all options,” Guzzi said. “They bring in other specialists (such as) masons who have experience with historic buildings.”

Another big project for the firm was Market Hall, a National Historic Landmark in Charleston, S.C. The firm’s services included re-enforcing the structural system to survive earthquakes, installing building monitors, providing historic paint and finish analysis, and a comprehensive interior and exterior restoration.

“It’s still owned by the City of Charleston,” Oppermann said. “They hired us after Hurricane Hugo. We did a $2.5 million restoration to that.”

In North Carolina, the firm is currently heading a team of architects, engineers and conservators to evaluate the structural and material integrity of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse built in 1859 and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse constructed between 1869 and 1970. The work is being done for the National Park Service.

Tommy Jones, now a private historic preservation consultant, recently retired from his job as a architectural historian for the National Park Service but not before he worked on a lot of projects with Oppermann for more than 10 years.

“He’s well-known in the historic preservation field,” Jones said of Oppermann.

He also described Oppermann as an authority in historic preservation.

“Anything to do with historic buildings, not only documenting them but making alternations and rehabilitations, he’s just great,” Jones said.

Opperman’s firm is also providing services for the Carl Sandburg home in Flat Rock.

“A whole series of buildings are there — all sorts of barns and outbuildings and quarters and a main house,” Oppermann said. “We’re using dendrochronology to date the buildings there.”

Dendrochronology is the science of dating wood based on an analysis of the patterns of tree rings.

The firm is also working on master plans for Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., and the North Carolina State Capitol.

“Our wonderful 1841 capitol really is one of the great public buildings in America and 19th-century buildings,” Oppermann said. “It’s absolutely fabulous.”

Oppermann has worked in the architectural field since graduating from the University of Texas in 1975. He came to Winston-Salem in 1987 to join a friend, Charles Phillips, to create Phillips & Oppermann. Phillips was a former director of restoration at Old Salem Museums & Gardens. Oppermann started his current practice in 1999.

Joseph K. Oppermann –Architect’s office is at 539 N. Trade St. in downtown Winston-Salem. Other people in the office are Henry Lafferty, senior architect; Langdon Oppermann, an architectural historian and Oppermann’s wife; and Rebecca McCormick, an architect.

When the firm assembles its overall teams for projects, it typically brings in engineers, historians and various conservators, including wallpaper, wood, masonry and glass conservators.

Over the past 15 to 20 years, the museum community has made a big shift in its approach to preserving historic structures, but Lafferty believes that the general public still doesn’t realize the problems that can be created by putting in heating and air conditioning systems without appropriate designing.

“You can create conditions where mold and moisture can build up in the wall systems,” Lafferty said. “If people aren’t aware of that, then you can end up with real long-term damage to the building.”

Oppermann said that systems can be designed “to create an environment that’s good for both the building as well as the occupants and the artifacts contained in the building.”

As for his firm’s future, Oppermann plans to continue on his current path.

“We’re really in the business of important historic architecture, and there’s always strong support for that,” he said.