Madison is home to one of six Thai pavilions worldwide built outside of Thailand. Also known as a “Sala”, the Royal Thai Pavilion in Olbrich Botanical Gardens was built in 2001. It was given to UW-Madison, which elected to build it in the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, under the administration of the city.
It was a gift from the UW-Madison Thai Alumni Association, and the Thai royal family for UW-Madison’s support of Thai students. The Thai Alumni Association is the largest outside of the United States. That gives the building another name: the Royal Thai Pavilion, since it bears the royal seal and was dedicated by a princess.
The Sala is a symbol of international cooperation. Sala are built with only wooden joints to support the structure, an indication to its unique architecture
The Sala has endured 20 Wisconsin winters and now the time has come for repairs. Late last year, the city of Madison commissioned a report on the Royal Pavilion’s condition. That report, released in mid-May, found that several parts of the building are in critical condition and in need of speedy repair.
Gary Brown is the Director of Campus Planning and Landscape Architecture at UW-Madison. He is on the restoration team and helped with the original construction.
“The Pavilion needs some major work, especially on its roof system. So we’re gonna be replacing the tile roof that’s on there. Along with doing any of the other associated repairs. And repairing some of the gold leaf, and the glass tiles, and a variety of things,” says Brown.
As detailed in the report, the glazed ceramic tiles have cracked and flaked, and even fallen off, because of the intense freeze-thaw cycles that Wisconsin experiences. This has led to water leaking into the wooden structure that the tiles hang on.
Jeff Epping is the Director of Horticulture for Olbrich Gardens. He was also part of the original construction.
“The original tiles, they fired them at a higher temperature, if I remember. To try and get them to last even longer. So obviously they were thinking about it at the time. And did what they thought was right. And let me tell you, they’ve lasted a while,” says Epping.
The roof’s flashing is also in trouble. The lead sheet metal that protects the ridge and corners of the roof have been getting more and more weathered and bent. The steel nails that attach it to the wood underneath have chemically reacted with the lead and made the nail holes useless in holding the metal down.
The cost of the repairs is estimated to be $1.6 million dollars, completed all in one go to keep costs down. The new ceramic roof alone will cost $315,000, this time made from clay more resilient to the weather.
I asked Jeff Epping about how the project will stay true to the design.
“We want to do what’s right. We’re actually consulting with the Ministry of Fine Arts in Thailand on some of the repairs that we are making. And make sure that they’re happy with what we’re doing. So it’s a great relationship between the Thai Government, the Thai Alumni Association, the University of Wisconsin Madison, and or course Olbrich and the City of Madison. We all want to work on this together so that everyone is happy with all the repairs that are being made.”
When I asked Gary Brown, he said that the Royal Pavilion will change over time.
“So this is not considered a historic piece or a piece of public artwork. It actually is a very typical kind of facility that you would see in Thailand. The Thai government and the Thai family wanted to assure us that, yes, this is something special, but it is not something that you maintained like a piece public artwork or historic facility. These Sala, S-A-L-A, are actually found throughout Thailand. It’s just this one was created to honor the Thai Princess.”
Although the repairs are costly, it will eventually cost the city nothing to pay for them. Through an agreement made when the Royal Pavilion was constructed, UW-Madison will reimburse the city for all major repair costs.
On Wednesday, June 1st, at 6pm, there will be a virtual public meeting on the report and the project. You can register for that meeting here.
Also, Her Majesty Queen Suthida Bajrasudhabimalalakshana has a birthday on June 3rd.