In our work I often find that the most difficult task is to understand the expectations that surround a project. When it is the most arduous is when the person that we are going to work for believes that there is a set of rules of only one way that things should be done. For me, the reality is that the longer I work at various projects in historic preservation, the more different and unexpected ways any project can be approached. As I get older I find that I spend more and more time trying to understand a customer’s expectations, and more often than not I find that I simply cannot figure them out quite well enough.
In respect of this there are two phenomena that I want to explore here. First is the endurance of temporary work. Some of my temporary work has endured for decades. Second is when work requires that we abandon our preconceived notions of fine craft and find ourselves having to work sloppy in order to make a thing look as if it belongs. I could also go on about how ‘level’ in historic work does not mean quite the same thing as in new build, but I will leave that to your never ending curiosity.
New York Mercantile Exchange
At the corner of Hudson and Harrison Streets in New York sits the building that between 1885 and 1977 was the home of the New York Mercantile Exchange. Close to 20 years ago, when it had been recently acquired by a descendant of the Rockefeller family, we worked on the exterior restoration of the building. During the project it came up that something needed to be done at the top of the tower where a finial was missing. As a change order we were asked to make a lead-coated copper cap, which was intended as a temporary measure.
A few years ago I was in the area to look at a fireplace that had caught on fire (construction adhesive is flammable and should never be used to adhere stainless steel to a metal firebox contraption) and when out on the terrace I looked over toward the Mercantile Exchange building and saw that the metal cap was still in place. Looking on Google maps street view I see that there is now a new finial in place. At least this gives me a sense of how long is temporary.
Temporary but more contemporary, and not our work but an assembly that we take a great deal of delight in (if only there were an awards ceremony), and that we will monitor into the future, are stone pillars at the Congregation Jeshuat Israel cemetery in Newport, RI.
When you come in from the east off the bridge on Route 138 then head south on Farewell Street, you can see them on the right. With a background in stonemasonry, and with many friends who are hyper-busy it needs in the dry stone walling universe (shout out to the Stone Foundation and the Kentucky based Dry Stone Conservancy), the technique to hold the pillars together with cargo straps and the interspersed wood shims I find elegant. I mean elegance in the sense of an engineered solution that is simple and works. Keep in mind that this technique adheres to the maxim of “Do no harm,” as well that it is reversible, and that it was not one of those solutions that required relocation to storage, where it could have gone the way of the missing cast iron façade (Bogardus Building).
Yet, while I am in general complaint mode, I was recently called by an architect friend who saw may name listed on a NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission permit application from some long-forgotten ancient decade, and he asked me what I remembered of the project. It had to do with a townhouse in the 70s on the Upper West Side. He was engaged to look at the woman’s stoop, a tall one, and he wanted to know if I had any clue as to what may, or may not, have been splooged onto it. I went back and looked in my files and came back with, “Yes, I remember that job. The woman was insane. She engaged us to clean the outside of her building. What she did not tell us until the contract was signed was that she wanted her façade cleaned so that she could have a party.” For me it was one of many townhouse façade projects, and we put it in the queue. Then she had a fit as her party date approached. Lost expectations.
The worse accusation was that we were incompetent because one day our project supervisor rolled his eyes. She ended off by cheating us out of a substantial amount of money, and I ended off by writing a letter to the NY Landmarks Conservancy, who had referred the crazy lady to us, saying that not only should they vet the competence of the contractors on their list, but maybe filter out the really weird property owners. I really do not like it when I end off with a client feeling that they are psychotic and that I missed their lunacy during the initial interview. When I bring these stories up with my peers I find that I am not alone.
I will finish with two example of projects where, contrary to the ingrained spirit of a craftsperson, I had to adjust to not do good work, but to transcend craft and make the new work look as if belonged in the aged context. This is where expectations start to go off into their own little confused universe.
We worked on what is called the Hessian Hut, which is located in the yard behind the Dykman House up at the north end of Manhattan. The Hessian Hut was not actually revolutionary war authentic, but it was the recreation of an amateur archeologist, Reginald Pelham Bolton, and built in 1915. That year makes the hut historic enough for us. Our scope was to replace the cedar logs that imagined the roof. The chimney was built of round glacial cobbles, and there was also a problem with the original flashing and years of water seepage into the folly structure. When we removed the existing cedar logs we found a layer of Alcoa aluminum — not likely to have been a building material available in the 18th century.
When we removed the logs there were strips of black bitumen coating between the original logs, and that the new logs would not line up to hide the clean stripes. We cut up some 4×4-in. pieces of aluminum and coated them with bitumen paint and then sprinkled them with dirt and ashes and stuff we found in the yard and driveway and submitted them for approval. My son made up a smiley face with macaroni for one of the samples (we often think out of the box). Two samples were approved, neither of them the smiley face (it went into our Building Arts Museum), and we were asked to mix the dirt 50:50. It was like black-on-black floss painting.
When we finished up with the logs and the new aluminum flashing on the chimney, it was brought up to us that the flashing looked out of place. Accordingly, we went about to bash it with a hammer and coat it with our black flossy mixture. It was fuzzy wuzzy. If you have ever bashed an aluminum flashing with a hammer, then you will have a sense of the skill and control required to not negate the flashing at the now dented corners.
Lefferts House in Brooklyn
Our last example was the construction of a bake oven and cooking fireplace in Prospect Park at the site of the Lefferts House, which is an historic museum specifically for children. The intent of the construction, which was categorized as playground equipment, and was built in the yard (no fire in the historic house) was so that the resident educators could engage children in cooking and baking according to recipes traditional to the family.
The project was one with volunteers and our role was to guide as masons, but not to touch. Leastways to touch as little as possible, I mean, not to jump in and do the work, but let the volunteers learn from their hands-on experience. Every session we had a different set of volunteers. The first set consisted of “children at risk” coupled with staff from Goldman-Sachs — about as un-hands-on a group as had ever met a firebrick. They did pretty well considering. Each group of volunteers did an amazingly interesting job of it. The idea was to build a masonry structure that would look like an untutored farmer had built it.
Eventually we ran out of volunteers and were faced with professionals, who would have to complete the work and make it look as if they were volunteers. It felt sort of like the Three Musketeers out on a lark to abandon all hope of quality of craft, but we managed on this project to meet expectations with the desired level of aesthetic mess.