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Laying the Groundwork: Replacing Marble Tile at the Bell Tower

If you have been keeping up with the ongoing rehabilitation of Oakland Cemetery’s iconic 1899 Bell Tower, you will be pleased to know it’s in its final chapter before being open to the public! As part of the rehabilitation process, the preservation team, led by Ashley Shares, replaced and repaired damaged marble tile on the Bell Tower’s porch. This process of replacing badly damaged tiles and re-setting loose tiles ensured that the flooring of the porch would no longer pose a safety hazard to visitors. We then replaced and repaired tiles in the vault, where the team is also working on repairing the iron doors taken out at the beginning of the restoration project for their protection.

We began our process by assessing the tiles and deciding which ones we needed to repair and which we needed to replace. The ones we saved were placed off to the side safely on a tarp to prevent damage. Some tiles were damaged beyond repair and were replaced with new tiles from the Georgia Marble Company in Tate. The Georgia Marble Company has been in operation for nearly 150 years and is thought to have been the source for the original tiles. Ashley actually went to Tate in person to hand-select a slab of marble from which the replacement tiles could be cut. This proved difficult, as the Bell Tower tiles are cut from what is referred to as “quarry stock”— essentially just leftover scraps cut from different parts of the quarry. Thus, they do not have a uniform look. Luckily, much of the marble from the Tate quarries contains the distinct “veining” that is seen in the original tiles. A very close match was located and cut to the precise dimensions of the older tile— a very important detail, since the floor is laid with little to no space between the tiles, thus leaving very minimal room for error.

When it came time to lay the tile, we cleared the area as best we could to expose the solid foundation underneath. We then filled the deeper holes on the floor with concrete to bring the ground to level under the tiles. Once the concrete had cured, we dry-set all the tiles to make sure they fit neatly in place. We then laid the tiles in a batch of very wet lime mortar, which allowed us to work with and easily maneuver the tiles to be at the same level. After this, we began the pointing process and filled in the joints between each stone tile. This was done using a lime mixture with cookie-dough-like consistency, a small trowel, and when needed, a smaller pick tool to really pack the joints. Many people have walked over these tiles since 1899, and I was happy to play a part in laying the new groundwork for future visitors to walk on.

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