PORTLAND – When the grinding stops and the dust clears, the terrazzo stairway in the foyer of Portland High School will appear much as it did when it was installed 95 years ago by Italian immigrants.

A contractor is restoring the marble tile to its gleaming-white glory, after removing layers of cement, rusted steel and brown rubber tread that covered the stairway for more than two decades.

Tony Celeste of Westbrook, a fifth-generation terrazzo expert, is working alongside his son, David, and two other tile masons. They’re using the hand-formed process and imported materials of their predecessors, including matching white marble chips from Bianco, Italy.

“This is a work of art,” Celeste said during a break Thursday, a breathing mask pushed up on his forehead. “For them to cover it up, it’s just a sin.”

The $16,000 stairway restoration is one of several major maintenance projects happening this summer in and around Portland’s public schools, said Bob Leeman, the city’s director of public buildings.

The projects are being overseen by the city’s municipal building managers, who started managing the maintenance of Portland’s 18 school buildings in May after the school district eliminated the maintenance supervisor’s position.

The change is expected to save money and increase efficiency. The school projects are being done by school maintenance workers, contractors, public works employees and school custodians.

The stairway at Portland High is being restored because moisture in the foyer rusted the steel overlay and lifted the rubber treads, creating a tripping hazard that couldn’t be repaired, said Kathy Alves, the city’s director of building trades.

Rather than install another metal overlay that would eventually rust, city officials decided to restore the terrazzo, which lasted more than 70 years before the stairs were covered when the high school was renovated in 1988.

All stairways and hallways in the school are lined with terrazzo, a flooring material made of marble chips that are set in cement and buffed to a high gloss.

During the 1988 renovation, most of the stairways in the school were covered with cement, steel and rubber tread because the terrazzo was worn and slippery, Alves said.

On the interior stairways, the steel overlay hasn’t rusted, Alves said, so it’s unlikely that they will be restored anytime soon, especially given the school district’s ongoing budget constraints.

The high school’s front entrance on Cumberland Avenue has been transformed in recent years, including the restoration of the front doors last summer. That work was done by volunteers from Monaghan Woodworks of Portland, Portland Window Co. of Scarborough and the Brewer family.

In restoring the terrazzo, Celeste and his crew are grinding off remnants of the cement overlay, filling bolt holes from the steel overlay and polishing the whole stairway.

To make sure the restored terrazzo isn’t slippery, Celeste plans to apply a sealant containing tiny metal bits, which add sandpaper-like grit to the surface of the stairs.

The sealant has been around for decades, Celeste said, so he’s surprised that it wasn’t used 22 years ago, so the long-lasting terrazzo could be kept uncovered. He hopes no one covers the stairs again.

“This is a dying art, it really is,” Celeste said. “I learned it from my father more than 30 years ago. Hopefully, my son and others will carry it forward.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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