From Normandy to Alcatraz

What do the WWII Normandy landing site, Point du Hoc, and Alcatraz Island have in common? The answer: aging reinforced concrete buildings, unrelenting coastal elements of buffeting wind and saltwater, and heavy traveler visitation to the site.

These environmental elements affected the picturesque Puppy Stairs which lead from the switchback behind Building 64 up to the historic gardens above. The concrete is cracked and chipped, the rebar

Cracked concrete and exposed rebar on the puppy stairs railing. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

rusting, and the stairs unusable to the majority of Alcatraz Island visitors. Built in the 1920s, during Alcatraz’ Military period, the steps are known as the Puppy Stairs because of their small rise. They were also known at one time as the Poodle Stairs, and other stairs in the same vicinity with a much larger rise were known as the Great Dane Stairs.

Dr. Tonya Komas, Director of the Chico State Concrete Industry Management program and a few students visited Point du Hoc in 2009 to do some noninvasive evaluations of the 20 World War II military bunkers. In 2009 Jason Hagin, Historical Architect for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, heard about this project at Chico State University exploring issues of environmental damage to structures similar to Alcatraz.

With Hagin’s connection to Komas, along with a grant from BASF, a concrete repair materials company, the rehabilitation of the Officers’ Row Stairs last summer and this year’s Puppy Stairs was a go. Students from Chico come to this project to fulfill an internship requirement which gives them credit toward their degree.

Students begin by learning how to work safely on the scaffolding. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Phil Peterson, Public Relations Director for the Concrete Industry Management Alcatraz Preservation Field School, answered some questions about the project:

What is involved in this project?

In 1966, the U.S. Department for the Interior established the National Historic Preservation Act, intended to preserve America’s historic and archeological sites. This legislation applies to our work in the areas of restoration, rehabilitation, and repair. To rehabilitate is to fix the historic site for use by the public, making every effort to maintain its historic nature.

What type of special materials will be used?

We are using a special concrete repair mortar called ZERO-C, a fresh-on-the-market repair mortar short for “zero-cracking” that has been developed over the past half-decade by BASF, a global chemical company. It’s basically construction Play-doh.

How long do you think the project will last?

We leave August 12 and return to school the week after, but we will be back many more summers. Chico State’s Concrete Industry Management program has a five-year agreement with the National Park Service to keep performing our restoration work, so we will keep coming back until at least 2015. As far as the Puppy Stairs is concerned, they should be finished next year, or the year after.

Who is working on this project?

The project is led by Professor and CIM Director Tanya Komas as well as Project Manager Andrew Billingsley. He is a

Students file down the railing edge for the final touch. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

student from last year’s pilot program who graduated and has been hired as faculty to oversee the project, as well as teach this year’s group of students. Students involved include Brandon Agles, Steven Aguilar, Kenneth Garcia, Greg Hollingshead, Brian O’Hair, Brian Peart, Phil Petermann and Sofia Salazar.

We have been provided with housing in the Marin Headlands for this project by the Parks Conservancy and NPS. Without housing, we wouldn’t able to do this project, and we’re eternally grateful for their help. On a personal note, this whole summer has just been unreal to me. Every once in a while I take a break from work and just look around and attempt to absorb the gravity of our work.

Contributed by Kristen Elford, Parks Conservancy

Thanks to Phillip Petermann, Dr. Tanya Komas and Jason Hagin. Bibliography: Thompson, Erwin N. “The Rock; A History of Alcatraz Island, 1847 to 1972”. Denver Service Center Historic Preservation Division National Parks Service. Denver Colorado.

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