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Michigan Heritage Awards

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Photo of Ernie Hawks pouring plaster
Ernie fills the mold with plaster in anticipation of a perfect product.

Photo of Ernie Hawks peeling off a plaster cast
Ernie says, "this type of cornice work is difficult to reproduce because, most of the molds are no longer available."

Photo of Ernie Hawks handles plaster casts
Ernie Hawks handles molded plaster cartouches made to adorn the doorways of the Michigan State Capitol.

Photo of Ernie Hawks examines a plaster cast
Ernie Hawks examines the quality of a molded plaster ornament.

Ernie Hawks
2006 awardee, Lansing (Ingham County), Ornamental Architectural Plasterer

In 1949 during the postwar building boom, Ernie Hawks was busy working as an apprentice plasterer on Michigan State University campus buildings. During his four-year apprenticeship he volunteered his services whenever cornice or ornamental work was needed and developed a reputation for his expertise in running cornices and making molds of ornamental plaster. After a long and successful career of beautifying buildings with ornamental plaster, Ernie was coaxed from his Florida retirement home in the late 1980s to head up the plaster restoration on the Michigan State Capitol Restoration Project.

This project was the granddaddy of ornamental plaster projects. The 1879 building, designed by Elijah Myers, had been adorned from top to bottom with elaborate Victorian-era ornamental plaster and decorative paint, but over the years, much of the building's original beauty had been obscured by suspended ceilings and coats of white paint.

Over the course of the restoration project Ernie and his crew made thousands of feet of replacement plaster cornice, some of which was 24" wide. They replaced thousands of square feet of plaster walls, using one-inch-thick, super-strength plaster. Making rubber molds from the few remaining original plaster cartouches left behind after earlier renovations, Ernie and his crew also made hundreds of replacement cartouches for use above the doors and windows.

Ernie worked five years restoring plaster at the Capitol, overseeing a crew of 12 men that included his nephew Gerald Vergeson of Lyons, who learned the ornamental plaster trade from his uncle.

Ernie’s craftsmanship can also be seen in Michigan at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, the Michigan Theater in Lansing, the Fairchild Theater on the Michigan State University campus in East Lansing , the Hannah Community Center in East Lansing, and the courthouse in Flint to name a few.

Ernie Hawks is recognized with a 2006 Michigan Heritage Award for his mastery and transmission of the art of ornamental architectural plaster.

--Lynne Swanson, fieldworker

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