Meet the restoration team reviving the community’s most historical artifacts damaged by the flood

When items of importance take on water, like much of the history that makes up the fabric of Midland did this past May, you wouldn’t think the first step on the road to recovery would be to freeze them.

Yet, that is exactly the method that helps make restoration possible.

Electronic Restoration Services, in Livonia, Michigan, is the parent company of four restoration businesses, two of which are directly involved in Midland’s flood restoration efforts. Established in 1991, the company franchises nationally and takes on some of the more difficult restoration work at their headquarters in Metro Detroit when needed. National disasters like tropical storms and hurricanes like ones seen in Galveston over the years and Hurricane Katrina are always on their radar, and they often handle some of the most difficult recovery efforts from those events right here in Michigan.

Approximately 575 cubic feet of materials have been sent to Metro Detroit for restoration.

This May, their job was a little bit closer to home when a team of 10-12 staff from both DFD Documents Restoration Services and Art Recovery Technologies came to Midland for the recovery of artifacts and other items from the Herbert D. Doan History Center and Heritage Park. Since then, all materials have been under their care, and also joined assets from other organizations within our community, all awaiting the restoration process.

The process can take many forms, but initially, items are frozen to preserve their integrity and prevent mold growth, and then later on freeze dried prior to going through a cleaning and detailed hands-on restoration process. DFD has a digital department where files are often digitized for their owners as part of the recovery process.

Items were labeled and tagged when recovered in May 2020.

There are three types of water restoration – clear, gray and black – for clean water, contaminated water and sewage, and DFD takes on all recovery efforts.

“Our facility is set up to support the restoration process, with items entering the building at the back, dirty and contaminated, from which they move to a holding area once decontaminated and then into production and the final phases of recovery,” says Adam Lyszczarz, DFD Program Manager and Quality Engineer. “This way, there is never any risk for cross-contamination between different jobs.”

DFD has the largest mobile freeze dryers in the nation, able to process 750 cubic feet of documents at one time. Items are separated by the type of materials involved. The materials from the Doan History Center will be processed in at least three to four phases.

Once approved by insurance for restoration, the process will begin.

“Items like historical books will go in for processing at a much lower temperature so they don’t warp, compared to regular paper, which can handle a much higher temperature,” says Lyszczarz. “And in the case of unique items like rugs or mixed materials will be processed at a custom temperature.”

DFD’s drying equipment can take an item from completely saturated to dry in five to seven days, which is extremely efficient compared to other dryers, which can take up to a month.  

Adam Lyszczarz, DFD Program Manager and Quality Engineer.

“In that initial stage, the items are loaded on to carts, which have heating elements in the shelves. Ice below that gets to subzero temperatures, and the temperature difference in the vacuum pulls the frozen moisture out of the material and condenses it into ice before it ever goes back to liquid form,” says Lyszczarz. “That’s the difference in drying something out in a hot room versus drying it out in a complete vacuum with a temperature variance and why you don’t get warpage.”  

If a product does have mold, DFD sends it out to a third party for gamma radiation, which is the safest and most effective way for killing any significant amount of mold that has built up.

Bins remain in a freezer to protect from further deterioration.

“Gamma radiation is the best option in those instances because with that process, it doesn’t matter how big or thick anything is, or the density, the gamma radiation goes straight through it,” says Lyszczarz.

As part of the restoration process, DFD takes inventory of each item, photographs, packages and barcodes each item noting its condition and specific damage. Midland’s materials are currently still in their frozen state waiting for approval from insurance and information from FEMA.

In total, content from Midland’s archives and other materials from the Doan History Center amounts to 397 large bins and 575 cubic feet of materials in addition to several pieces of art, maps and more that will be assessed and recovered.

Pieces from the Doan History Center's collection.

“Most people think that when papers get wet or burned, the item is a total loss, and there are occasions that items can’t be recovered,” says Lyszczarz. “But it's quite remarkable what we are able to restore. Let’s say in the case of burned paper, sometimes we are able to contrast it, and pull information off of it. There's also burnt edge removal, where we will take the edges off a book or a pamphlet of papers. So, there are quite a few options we have to work with, if it’s something that is truly important or an organization’s records retention policy says they must keep it. Just because you think something may be a total loss, always talk to an expert, because there’s a good chance you can save all or a large portion of that information.”

While the materials from the Doan History Center are still waiting for approval to be processed by DFD and remain frozen, a large majority of the assets are assessed to be recoverable. Once started, a job the size of the Doan Center’s assets takes on average six to eight weeks to complete with the manpower of 30-50 people, who will iron pages of materials individually to flatten them out once processed.

For the Doan History Center’s art and maps, Art Recovery Technologies (ART) resident artists will be working to restore an additional 101 pieces of work.

ART General Manager Mary Fisher-Smith with some of the art.

The ART team is made up of artists with different backgrounds, some in painting, others in fashion design and jewelry repair and they have seen and restored just about any disaster issue. While DFD’s work is methodical, the art restoration side of the business is the complete opposite, as each job presents an entirely new and unique set of challenges.

The restoration requests that ART takes on span anywhere from putting the majority of an entire painting back together that came to them in pieces, to replacing a large portion of a statue, to restoring a taxidermy piece of a giraffe that was partially burned in a fire and had asbestos contamination. From difficult to peculiar, they have seen it all, even working to restore the alien from the movie Alien, which was made of rubber and foam and was degrading.

Jacob Huss, Historical Programs and Exhibits Manager with maps from Midland's collection.

While ART has their fair share of famous pieces, a majority of their work revolves around flood and water damage, fire, vandalism or age-related damage, and as such, every single job is unique.

Significant items from the Doan History Center that will be restored by DFD and ART include an 1897 Plat map showing property owner information, Birdseye maps of Midland and Coleman from 1884 and a graphite drawing of an original Dow plant.

A graphite piece of Dow's plant that will be restored. A water line can be seen 2/3rds up.

Other items from Midland’s history include photos and items of significance damaged in the flood, include:

A photo of Main Street showing John Johnson’s original barbershop from 1860. Johnson was one of the first African American settlers in Midland and ran his barber shop well into the 20th century.

The 1937 court ledger containing information about Tony Chebatoris, the man who robbed a bank in Midland and went on to become the only person legally executed in Michigan after 1846 when capital punishment was abolished, as Chebatoris was prosecuted as part of a federal trial and beyond the jurisdiction of the state.

Irmgard Mack’s improvised parachute wedding dress from Germany. Mack was a German woman who survived the firebombing of her hometown of Kassel, Germany. After the war she worked as an interpreter for the American military and married an American GI in 1948. Once married to an American, Mack was required to leave Germany immediately, thus the need for a quick wedding and makeshift wedding dress, which was made out of a parachute. Mack later moved to Midland in 1971, where she volunteered with the Literacy Council and worked with students who spoke English as a second language.

Important history, all of which is in good hands.

Jacob Huss, Historical Programs and Exhibits Manager with some of ART's staff.

The restoration work at ART is done by three resident artists and restoration experts. There is a bit of problem-solving magic in there too, given the nature of their work. After all, they are often tasked with saving history.

“Problem solving is a big thing for us, because you go to school to learn how to restore something, but they don’t teach you how to deal with all the other things that come up,” says Mary Fisher-Smith, General Manager of Art Recovery Technologies. “Often times in flood cases, you’re standing in knee-deep water and have to figure out what to do, which we’ve just picked up over the years. Disaster recovery has so many unplanned elements to it, that we often have to work around.”

ART General Manager Mary Fisher-Smith.

“While he’s retired now, our company’s founder was a person that thought outside the box on this type of work when we started,” says Fisher-Smith. “So, that is where the freeze dryers, gamma radiation and some of our specialized equipment comes into play. That spirit runs over into everything we do here, because there is always a unique issue with every restoration piece we work on.”

Stay tuned for a follow up article with some before-and-after looks at some of Midland’s history thanks to the work of DFD and ART.

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Read more articles by Courtney Soule.

Courtney is a longtime Midland resident and enjoys telling the story of the community's evolution. She ran Catalyst Midland as the publication's managing editor from October 2017 through September 2020. Her favorite topics are interesting people, change makers, outdoor recreation and design. Aside from Catalyst, her published work can be found various places including Elephant Journal, Thought Catalog and a number of other websites, papers, menus and the occasional one-liner.