What began as a seismic retrofit to ensure a historic downtown building meets earthquake codes soon turned into "an archaeological dig" for a piece of Palo Alto history.
Rapp Development is currently renovating the Birge Clark building at 261 Hamilton Ave., which until recently housed University Art Center. The building, constructed in 1927, was originally designed as a medical-dental building and featured the city's first underground garage. The U.S. post office operated out of the ground floor until 1933, when the stand-alone post office at 380 Hamilton Ave. was completed.
While developer Roxy Rapp and partner Joe Martignetti were looking at Clark's original plans for 261 Hamilton, the two noticed decorative panels on both sides of the facade next to the post office's entrance.
"I thought, 'Oh God, that's no longer there,'" Rapp said. But when he went to examine the building, he happened to see the "little outline of the stucco where they patched it. And (he) said, 'I wonder if it could still be there?'"
To put an end to his curiosity, Rapp hired Emeryville-based Giampolini Courtney, a masonry restoration company, to uncover the artwork.
"These guys are artists. ... They're like archaeologists that go into tombs and carefully relieve skeletons and artifacts. ... You've got to have a whole lot of patience to do it," Rapp said.
With a mashing hammer and chisel in hand, Shawn Tibbs of Giampolini took to the site where an incredible discovery was made: two 2-foot-by-2-foot panels, each made up of 16 tiles. One depicted an airplane with "U.S. Mail" etched on the door panel and the other, a mail boat.
Tibbs, a stone carver by trade, worked for two days to uncover one panel, which was covered with two inches of mortar, paint and a wax substance that helped preserve the artwork, he said.
"I used my technique to carve stone, which is a lot less destructive," he said.
The next step is to put a coating on the tiles to protect them and "leave them exposed the way it was originally intended," Tibbs said.
Rapp said he thinks the artwork was based on stamps from that era and is working to find out more details.
"You got to realize this was in 1928 this tile was produced and put into the building. So it's been in there that long," he said. "It's so neat to be able to discover something that ... was covered up, and so I'm trying to restore it as much as I can."
During a recent visit to see the artwork, city planner Matthew Weintraub said it is amazing that the panels are in such good condition and that it is great to see effort being put into preserving the artwork.
The four-story building at the corner of Ramona Street and across from City Hall is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.