Preserving History from Deterioration


    A receiving vault in Springfield, Ill. once held the bodies of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln and his son, Willie, following Lincoln’s funeral service on May 4, 1865. The bodies of Lincoln and his son, who died at age 11 in the White House, rested in the receiving vault until Dec. 21, 1865, when they were moved to another vault.

    The vault, which had served as a temporary tomb while burial plans were made or if a grave could not be dug due to frozen ground, is located at the base of a hill, north of President Lincoln’s tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery. Due to its location at a low spot in the cemetery, the vault was subject to water penetration that resulted in major deterioration. The vault’s restoration needed to be completed in time for a two-day ceremony, May 2-3, 2015, to reenact and commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s funeral.

    Western Specialty Contractors, partnered with project engineer Coombe-Bloxdorf, a Division of Fehr-Graham & Associates, began the five-month restoration project on Dec. 1, 2014. The initial phase of the project involved channeling water away from the vault with the installation of drains. Once that task was completed, the general contractor began excavating the area around the vault in preparation for Western’s scope of work, which included waterproofing, repairs to the stone faade, and restoration of the marble.

    Due to its location at a low spot in the cemetery, the vault was subject to water penetration that resulted in major deterioration.

    Constructed in the 1860s using outdated materials and technology, Western crews encountered more extensive deterioration to the vault than they had originally anticipated. During excavation around the outside of the historic site, it was discovered that the walls making up the vault’s exterior were in such poor condition – bricks were deteriorating, voids were present in the masonry wall, and stone infill had been used – that waterproofing could not be applied directly to the surface, and an alternate means of repair was necessary to prepare the vault for the waterproofing application.

    “Because this was a historic site, the customer did not want us using a lot of new means and methods to restore it,” said Springfield Project Manager Josh Woolard. “We had to come up with a scope of work that would repair the walls without compromising the integrity of the historic structure. We formulated a system using a low-cement-ratio mortar and brick infill in areas where the brick had deteriorated away from the wall. After infilling the voids in the walls, we applied a layer of the low-cement-ratio mortar to the entire wall surface to create a smooth surface with no protrusions that could penetrate through the bentonite sheet waterproofing.”

    Another challenge to the project was finding a quality match for the stone replacements on the serpentine retaining walls that extended outward away from the vault entrance. Due to the age of the vault, the original stone material used was no longer available, and Western crews had to find a suitable, alternate material that would closely match the existing stones and meet the customer’s needs. Many mock-ups of stone fabrication were required to find the perfect match.

    During excavation, it was discovered that the vault’s walls were in poor condition with deteriorating bricks and voids in the masonry wall.

    “These walls contain two curves, one inward and one outward. It was not only a matter of finding the correct length and depth of the stone, but also finding the radius of the curves in order to fabricate stone that would fit into the voids created by the removal of the stones,” Woolard said. “In order to find the radius in the stone, we had to remove the existing stone. By first creating a template on Styrofoam of the gaps created by the removal of the stones, we were able to use computer software to find the radius of the curves within the wall.”

    Western also used other special methods to recreate the unique beaded joint evident in the original masonry construction.

    “Unlike most joints in masonry construction, these joints were not concave or flat joints. Instead, they were beaded joints within the masonry. In order to achieve this effect, we used special tools and procedures which allowed the mortar to hold its shape while it was formed. This process provided a less workable material and was more time consuming for even small amounts of tuck pointing, but the end result is a structurally sound, historical replication of how the vault was originally constructed,” Woolard said.

    Before (left) and after (right) photos show Western Specialty Contractors’ restoration work cleaning the tile floor, marble walls, and ceiling inside the vault chamber.

    Western crews completed the restoration work by carefully cleaning the tile floor and marble walls and ceiling inside the vault chamber using Prosoco 942 cleaner with a low-pressure rinse.

    The restoration project was completed on May 1, 2015 in time for the commemoration and funeral reenactment ceremonies.

    Information provided by Western Specialty Contractors (