Trusted Source in Masonry Restoration, Preservation
Otto Restoration Gives New Life to Historic Buildings
Each year, more than 40 million visitors flock to Philadelphia to take in the rich history of our nation’s birthplace. While visitors hope to set their eyes on a piece of history, John C. Otto Sr. of Otto Restoration Inc. has his hands on the homes and buildings that played a part in our country’s early years.
Otto Restoration specializes in masonry restoration and preservation. With a hand-picked and personally trained team, the company carefully cleans, repairs and restores stones and mortar in some of the city’s oldest houses and buildings, some dating back to the 1700s. The team not only serves Pennsylvania, but also customers in New Jersey, Delaware and even Washington, D.C.
When renowned stained glass conservationist Arthur Femenella Sr. of Femenella & Associates was charged with removing and restoring the majestic, 65-foot-tall stained glass windows at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Femenella chose Otto Restoration to caulk and weatherproof the fragile windows. “These windows had been in place for over 80 years. It was a huge vote of confidence and trust in our company,” Otto says.
In addition to masonry restoration, the company provides window caulking and waterproofing services, chimney repairs and rebuilds, and stone and wall flashing services. Otto Restoration also performs specialty services like limestone and brownstone repair, replacement and casts, lintel replacements and a variety of masonry texturing. “We partner with commercial customers and nonprofit organizations to restore and preserve the beauty and integrity of historical buildings that are oftentimes hundreds of years old,” he says. “Otto Restoration helps to ensure these buildings remain standing for years to come.”
Otto and his team have restored masonry on some of Philadelphia’s oldest mansions dating back to the 1700s and worked on projects at Muhlenberg College, which was founded in 1848. The university’s Haas College Center features a 100-foot “gothic” floodlit tower, which overlooks the historic West End neighborhood of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Otto Restoration stripped, repainted and restored all four clocks on the belfry.
Working with His Hands
Otto has worked with his hands for as long as he can remember. “My father was a plasterer and a painter, and my uncles were all in the construction business. When I was a teenager, I spent the summers and school breaks painting, plastering, siding and roofing. I enjoyed working with my hands,” he says.
The military veteran served in the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division during the Vietnam War era. Soon after retiring from military duty in the late 1970s, Otto learned the craft of brick pointing. After several years, he went in search of more challenging work. Otto started a residential masonry company and began working with the Bricklayers & Allied Craftworkers Local 1 union. In time, he was introduced to his mentor, who owned a local restoration company. “My mentor taught me the art of masonry restoration and preservation. By the time I started Otto Restoration in 2010, I was well known for my work in the historic community,” Otto says.
Innovating Tools, Techniques
One of Otto’s big wins early on was the restoration and preservation of the Eastern State Penitentiary. Located in Philadelphia, the former prison was built in the early 1800s and actively used until 1970. Today, this U.S. National Historic Landmark is open to the public as a museum. As lead mason, Otto was charged with repairing the crumbling mortar.
“Restoring the mortar around the old stonework is challenging because you don’t want the stone pointing to look absolutely perfect. The replaced mortar needs to appear weathered and match the texture and color of the existing mortar,” Otto explains.
In his pursuit of historical perfection, Otto designed a striking tool that achieves the exact profile shape of the existing mortar. His tool was so innovative that the client had his prototype manufactured. Today, Otto’s striking tool is still used in restoration work at the former penitentiary, and Otto Restoration continues to be the museum’s masonry company of choice.
“I’m very proud of our work at the Eastern State Penitentiary. Each year, we walk the halls, repairing loose stones and fixing failing mortar joints. We’ve redone cell blocks and replaced the steel and restored the brickwork on the watchtowers. It’s very gratifying to be called back year after year,” Otto says.
A Team of Craftsmen
Otto is also proud to have mentored all of his employees, personally spending time out in the field to train them in the craft. “I consider them all craftsmen. They’re very talented and very versatile,” he says. Otto’s very first employee, Frank Ciarrocchi, trained with Otto and today serves as Project Manager. “Frank comes from a well-known family that owns Chickie’s & Pete’s restaurant and sports bar. Frank could easily have gone into the family business, but chose to do this line of work,” Otto says. “He started from the bottom of the company and worked his way up. He’s got an incredible work ethic and is my lead guy.”
While masonry restoration and preservation is interesting work, it does come with its share of safety challenges. “You have to have eyes in the back of your head in this industry,” Otto says. “You’re working at heights, sometimes above pedestrian walkways. Attention to safety is critical.” To that end, all employees undergo OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) training and participate in weekly safety talks out in the field.
“This industry is ever-changing. We use materials now that are greener and better for the environment, and new processes like dust-recovery systems that better protect our workers and reduce air pollutants and irritants,” Otto says.
The company’s efforts have even received recognition from Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC). In 2017, Otto Restoration was named a Silver recipient in ABC’s Safety Training and Evaluation Process (STEP) awards program. “Otto Restoration is very well known for its precision services and attention to detail. We partner with engineers, architects, city officials and other clients to give new life to some of the oldest buildings and structures in this area. It’s very gratifying work,” Otto says.
At 61 years old, Otto admits he’s no “spring chicken,” but still likes to work on job sites. “I’m out in the field every week. I like to give the guys one-on-one training, and sometimes I get an itch to put those tools in my hands.”