Marvels of Millwork: Well Preserved (Ladue News)
Print feature, Ladue News, December 29, 2016
Photos by Sarah Conroy for the Ladue News
I still had the magazine bug after leaving Alive Magazine, so I began pitching the Ladue News to get into the editors' writer rotations. The magazine is a weekly publication targeted towards wealthy St. Louisans primarily in the central and western corridors, and they immediately picked me up to interview entrepreneurs, societal leaders and local celebrities. I've written for each of the magazine's sections, but most of my stories end up as style or wellness features.
The story below is the first story I wrote for the Ladue News. Older St. Louis architecture truly is gorgeous, and it was wonderful to talk with a restoration craftsman who has century-old tools at his disposal to bring traditional design back to life.
Like many children, 10-year-old Bill Hays was pulled into helping his father build and fix things around the house. Little did he know that the experience would help him become one of the most respected millwork specialists in St. Louis as an adult.
“Yeah, it was forced,” Hays says with a laugh. “It was the old way of doing things, you know.”
Today, Hays owns St. Louis Sash Corp., which has helped renovate and restore historic homes throughout Missouri for 30 years. Hays and his team of artists are integral to repairing and improving the wood details for both the interior and exterior of a home while respecting and showcasing the original distinctive splendor.
“There’s just a very unique nature of the homes here,” Hays says. “There’s almost a kind of signature associated with each one; each is an individual. And in order to preserve that look, the millwork has to be replicated. It has to be brought back and produced and put in so it doesn’t disturb the overall character of the house.”
Hays specializes in custom millwork, named as such for the doors, window casings, molding and paneling that are milled from wood. Hays learned early on about milling and the importance of staying true to a home’s essence while working with his father, a highway engineer who spent weekends repairing the family’s historic home.
“At one point in particular, we built an addition and modified the house,” Hays says. “My father’s lifelong friend owned a planing mill here in St. Louis, and he made some windows to match the rest of the windows in the house. When everything was finished, it looked like the house had always been this way.”
Authenticity is the key to millwork, Hays says, and his equipment backs this assertion up. Hays says that to create beautiful cabinetry, archways and other items, he uses methods and even machinery from 100 years ago because they have proven to be the best, time and time again.
“Predominantly, our work is geared toward renovation and restoration of homes, and consequently, we provide a product that replicates the old-fashioned methods and materials,” Hays says. “There really just isn’t any improving on it, in my opinion. They’re specialized for the kind of work I do.
“We’re not so concerned with productivity as much as we are with an authentic match, and part of that process entails using equipment and methods that were standard back then,” he continues. “The mortise and tenon joint, full cope and stick type of joinery – it’s all very traditional and kind of unique to the period.”
Improving a home through millwork can be overwhelming for some customers, so Hays taps his vast construction and architecture experience and walks clients through the steps before working on both older homes and new construction.
“I try to determine what their goals are for the project and how things need to be dressed, and then I try to fulfill those goals,” he says.
Hays says that many customers are concerned about potential costs, so he talks with them right away about what they’re looking for and what kind of budget is available. He then makes an appointment to evaluate and field-measure what he’ll be working on for the home. Finally, Hays begins an order confirmation process and sets about giving a client his or her dream home.
“We build things as simple as screens and storm windows, but then we also get into full-blown entry systems, with some side lights and multiwindow systems,” Hays says. “We’ve gotten into designing and building some European-type sliding door systems – all different kinds of stuff. We are truly a custom manufacturer, building everything made to order in a way that suits the individual needs of the projects.”
But Hays doesn’t just rehabilitate millwork for homes. His work also can be seen at the Old Saint Ferdinand Shrine in Florissant, which dates back to the early 1800s and is one of the oldest church buildings west of the Mississippi River. Hays’ team provided authentic replication of the third-floor dormer windows.
“They’re very simple; they don’t have any counterbalance weights, and there are no tracks,” Hays says. “They literally would hold the windows up with sticks.”
Likewise, Hays says his shop replaced nearly all the windows and doors in the Kern Lakeside Pavilion (formerly “the boathouse”) in Lafayette Park. The deteriorating structure was reclaimed as an event space several years ago, and Hays was called upon to bring it back to life.
Hays obviously takes pride in his art. With projects typically sending him to all points within a 90-mile radius of St. Louis (and once to Amarillo, Texas!), St. Louis Sash Corp.’s founder has been instrumental in preserving the Gateway City’s homes from a bygone era.
“I go all over town and smile to myself, driving by places and knowing I’ve worked on them,” Hays says. “The nature of the work doesn’t stand out; it’s not like somebody has a sign in their yard, and there was this major transformation when I worked on the project. It’s actually a reverse – what I do fits in. You don’t really disturb the appearance or character of the home; you enhance it by retaining that.”