John Athey, Ringler Restorations,
by Jeff Woodard
in the '60s, John Athey knew there was more to life than "hanging out at the pool all summer." So when Carl Ringler asked him if he wanted to make some money, he went to work for Ringler Restoration in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Beginning in junior high, Athey spent summers helping to paint and repair homes. As the company became more involved with commercial and church renovation, he was "running crews" as a high school student.
"I worked in the field for approximately one year before becoming a regular project supervisor," says Athey. "I began to bid projects and discovered the need for design and specifications for churches."
Athey credits Ringler's son, Rick, with leading him to Christianity, which in turn motivated him to attend Johnson Bible College in Knoxville, Tennessee. "This gave me a good background for working with churches," explains Athey. But when Rick Ringler died suddenly of a stroke at age 29, his father asked Athey if he would come to work full time for Ringler Restoration. Athey accepted the offer, returning to Greensburg in 1981.
"As a child, I had an interest and a talent for art," recalls Athey. "I was chosen to participate in a youth program at Carnegie Institute and Carnegie Mellon University, where my appreciation for art took on a new dimension." Athey later attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania as an art major, and has designed and painted murals for clients of Ringler Restoration.
Using his broad background in ministry preparation, furniture building, art design, engineering and construction, Athey incorporated a wide range of services into the industry. "I began specializing particularly in church space, bringing various skills to the job such as graining, marbleizing, artwork, light design, custom woodwork, wood carving, plastering and plaster molding, as well as structural modifications in cooperation with structural engineers." Athey estimates that church painting and restoration now comprises 95 percent of Ringler Restoration's workload.
Successful church restorations require an understanding of the distinct culture within the church and how it impacts the function, form, format and color of the final project, says Athey. "Also, we review the various customs of each church with our crews to make sure that we are respectful of each house of worship. We try to work around their scheduled worship services. Some of the smaller paint jobs allow us to go in on Monday and be done by Friday, allowing no disruption of Sunday services."
Job proposals vary depending on the scope of the project. "We generally price things by operation, which allows the church to select the operations it wants and/or can afford to do," says Athey. "Larger proposals will include drawings as well as specifications." A proposal is made so the church can plan stewardship development, and "when they are ready to do the work, a more specific proposal is sent," says Athey.
Churches often consult Ringler Restoration to determine the extent of renovation needed to best serve the congregation and community.
Lighting has everything to do with the success of any restoration. "It has a dramatic impact on all the other work undertaken in the space," says Athey. "We determine what types of lighting (feature vs. focal) are needed. Lighting also affects how the final colors of the church will look."
The type and range of lighting intensity determine paint tone and value. "Halogen light, for example, renders colors more like natural sunlight, rendering them naturally," explains Athey. "Normal incandescent sources tend to warm up or add an amber cast, while high-intensity discharge sources can render a range of influences. They can cast a rather harsh white light -- which renders fairly accurately -- to mercury and sodium sources, which render blue and strong amber orange-like tones." The latter should not be commonly used in worship and auditorium spaces, Athey advises.
Color temperature of these sources is a crucial factor in selecting tones and shapes, particularly in the larger spaces. "The key is to color-match on site. If you have a general idea and lots of paint to tint, it's good to use machine tint to get the shade close. But it's normally necessary to tweak them to get it just right," adds Athey, noting that knowledge of basic color theory is key.
In addition, color temperature determines how flesh tones are rendered so that "more flattering" sources may be used to help people feel better about being in the space. "The thing to remember is that dimming and partial-zone lighting impact tone and value rendition. So try out the colors under real lighting conditions to avoid surprises," suggests Athey.
Shown are plaster walls painted in a Trompe L'oeil to simulate a cut limestone construction. The extensive placement of lines to simulate mortar joints and the use of various limestone paint colors create an incredibly realistic effect.
Space arrangement throughout the church must also be evaluated carefully. Criteria for design scale arrangement and form are determined by exploring ways in which the building hinders or enhances the activity within it. "To make the space friendlier to people, we try to make sure folks can connect," notes Athey. "So we arrange the pews in such a way that allows those in attendance to see lots of other people's faces and have an opportunity to have a clear view of the pulpit or ambo."
Ringler Restoration periodically employs subcontractors for masonry jobs, sheet-metal work, woodworking repairs and lighting installations. "We have the ability to do most operations in house to some degree, but we have ongoing relationships with subcontractors. Our own staff of craftsmen does most of the more highly skilled operations such as graining, gilding and marbleizing. We also have woodworkers, plasterers and lighting specialists."
Application of decorative finishes usually involves five people, including Athey and his superintendent, Patrick Klingensmith. "Patrick and I have worked together for a long time. He started working with me when he was 19. I began showing him various techniques, and at 40, he can do about anything that comes our way."
Custom-fabricated job boxes on large castors and army surplus ammo boxes are used to organize and transport tools and equipment for various job operations and crafts. "We also mobilize sets of stationary shop tools for large and long-term projects," notes Athey. "We use semi-trailers and have our own tractor to transport equipment and scaffolding from site to site."
One of the company's most unique challenges took place at Tower Presbyterian Church in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Completed in 1989, the project involved detailed layout and painting a variety of colors on stone blocks. "The job at Grove City was tape and airbrush art," says Athey. "We used about 5 miles of tape. The placement and color selection was a random pattern that was directed from the main floor to avoid a repeat pattern and still achieve balance." The absence of skim coating in some areas and the presence of lime efflorescence posed problems. "We dug out to a sound surface, and then a bonding agent was applied, followed by lime skim coat in smooth trowel finish," says Athey.
Ringler Restoration began as a decorating firm in 1904 with proprietor Walter Ringler painting and decorating the finer homes in the mountains and hills of the Laurel Highlands. The company relocated to Greensburg in the late 1940s under Walter's son Carl, who sought to develop clientele among churches, courthouses and finer commercial establishments. Notable names and projects included Nemacolin Woodlands and the very finest homes of families with names such as Mellon and Arnold Palmer. By the 1970s, Carl's son Rick had returned from Trinity Theological Seminary in Chicago to work in the business, and the company's percentage of work done in churches continued to grow.
The decline of the western Pennsylvania steel industry prompted many displaced steelworkers and associates to "buy ladders and hang out a shingle as painters," says Athey. "We moved away from residential work to make room for smaller operations. Also, a more full-service approach is required in today's market." Athey says appreciation of European architecture has also been a factor. "It finds us taking a preservation or restoration approach to the basic structure while making the worship space more contemporary in terms of function."
Clients of Ringler Restoration can be found in Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, southern New York and Delaware. "Our crews will often travel to a distant town and be housed there until the job is complete," says Athey, who offers straightforward advice for contractors. "Do what you like to do and what you're good at. Be sure of the market. Do it well and be ready to sacrifice. Remember your values and stay focused."