The Student Prince loved his beer.
And beer lovers in Tacoma loved the Student Prince.
I say loved – past tense – because the Student Prince is dead. The last large image of the iconic advertising symbol of local brew Alt Heidelberg was washed away from the side of the University of Washington Tacoma’s Joy Building during renovation.
“We’re deeply saddened and dismayed and heartsick over this,” said UWT spokesman Mike Wark. He said the UWT strives to preserve the historic painted signs it inherited but was told by a subcontractor that the condition of this one was too fragile to withstand brick cleaning and tuck pointing.
The UWT is now trying to find out if that is true and whether the contractors did what was called for in project specifications.
But the consultant hired to identify the historic elements of the building said the UWT, the architects and the contractors could have saved the sign.
“The design team just absolutely blew it,” said Michael Sullivan of Artifacts Consulting. “They never should have turned it over to the masonry contractor. No one should have been hitting that wall with a pressure washer.”
Preserving so-called ghost signs is required in the city’s design guidelines for the Union Depot Warehouse District: “Existing historic wall signs are a contributing element within the district and should be restored or preserved in place.”
Up until now, the UWT has done a good job. The Mattress Factory Building displays a sign advertising “SLUMBERITE” mattresses. On an inside wall facing the new Philip Hall, the lower half of a Coke billboard still reminds that it is “SOLD EVERYWHERE.”
But the prince was a favorite.
“Everybody Knows It’s Better Alt Heidelberg,” read the sign facing north into downtown. Next to the slogan was the prince in full color with beer stein raised in a toast.
Following the repeal of federal alcohol prohibition in 1933, the lead character from a popular Sigmund Romberg operetta and the movie “The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg” was used widely to symbolize the local brew.
Later called simply Heidelberg, the beer and brewery fell victim to industry consolidation. It closed in 1979 and the brand disappeared. Gradually, so did the Student Prince.
A cast concrete frieze featuring the prince was removed from the entrance of the old brewery in 2005 and likely has been sold. The sign on the Joy Building was the last appearance by the prince in his adopted hometown.
Brian Favorite owns Cascade Masonry Restoration and is the go-to guy when historic brickwork is involved. He was the subcontractor on much of the brick and masonry restoration on campus and has worked on the walls holding the other ghost signs.
He said the Alt Heidelberg sign was in much worse condition than the others.
“You could have put your hand on it and peeled it off,” he said. He turned the pressure down on the power washers to what might come out of a garden hose and still the sign fell away, revealing a less-interesting and less-iconic sign beneath.
It happened months ago. But because the wall was covered by a blue tarp, school administrators didn’t find out about it until Tuesday. That’s when UWT Chancellor Pat Spakes went out and met with the contractors.
“I got my fingers slapped,” Favorite said.
Perhaps, he said, he should have stopped work and asked for advice. Perhaps he should have let UWT officials know right away.
“But I don’t see what we could have done to save it,” he said.
Plenty could have been done, said Sullivan, but not by Favorite. Before work on the building even started, he said he told design team members that a paint conservator should be hired to craft a plan to preserve what he called a “fragile artifact.”
“They might have lost the mortar-joint paint, but the paint on the brick was OK,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said the practice on other UWT buildings was to stabilize and seal the exteriors to “stop the clock at the moment it was taken over by the university.” For still unknown reasons, that wasn’t done on the prince sign before Favorite’s crews went to work.
Why was the preservation work not done, especially when specifications given Korsmo Construction by the architects said it should “Protect Existing Historical Signage from damage during masonry wall restoration and Building Construction.”
Derek deVille, a project architect with THA in Portland, said he doesn’t know. “We’re trying to figure out what happened and trying to understand what the next step should be,” deVille said. “We’re very conscious of the spirit of the place and we’re very disappointed that this happened.”
But there really aren’t any next steps, other than a postmortem. And, of course, regret.
What Sullivan calls “the best graphic ghost in the city” has been destroyed.
Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@thenews tribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/politics