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November 4, 2005 7:50 AM CST

Art in Four Dimensions


The corbeled top was repaired with new S&H Brick Company units.
Photo courtesy of Will Gwilliam

The chimney in its damaged state, prior to working starting.

Andre Holloway removes bricks from the Alden House chimney.
Photo courtesy of Anthony Haskett

From front to back, Allen Clary, Lawrence Waller and Anthony Haskett work on parging the rebuilt chimney.

Staging around chimney had to be built in such a way so that nothing touched the roof or structure of the 17th century Alden House.
Photo courtesy of Jack Peet
When Will Gwilliam looks at a 350-year-old chimney, crumbling from years of water damage, he sees more than failing bricks and mortar. He sees art.

And he just can't keep that to himself.

Last June, Gwilliam, an architect and 50-year veteran of masonry restoration, invited the public to watch as his team of six masons repaired, brick by brick, a 17th-century chimney in Duxbury, Mass. The chimney is a part of the historic Alden House, which rests on the last surviving property from the 1627 settlers land division and was home to pilgrims John and Priscilla Alden - nicknamed "America's first couple."

Alden "Rink" Ringquist, director of the Alden Kindred of America, a group of descendants who own and maintain the land, approached Gwilliam - also an Alden descendant - with the idea of opening up the historic house to visitors. It didn't take much convincing to get Gwilliam on board.

Gwilliam and the masons traveled more than 600 miles from Williamsburg, Va., to the Alden House site in Duxbury to complete the 14-day project and allow the community to experience what Gwilliam describes as "art in four dimensions."

Art, he says, is "any method that is intermediary in creating human emotion." Music creates emotion. Sculpture creates emotion in three dimensions. Architecture does so in four.

"The fourth dimension is time," Gwilliam says. "And one of the things that spans time better than many things is brick."

Cameras in hand and questions in mind, more than 60 people of all ages climbed the scaffold for a chance to learn firsthand about masonry and to connect with the house's rich history. Close to 40 guests attended an hour-long talk and slideshow given by expert mason Jack Peet, who explained the restoration from inception to completion.

Without personally witnessing the work unfold, visitors to the Alden House "could have [walked] through it a hundred times and gotten little more out of it than a souvenir refrigerator magnet," Peet says.

Having a dialogue with the masons allowed the community to learn about specific craftsman techniques - what materials they used and why they used them. Peet and the other masons - Lawrence Waller, Andre Holloway, Antonio Haskett, Anthony Haskett and Allen Clary - chose St. Astier, a naturally-occurring soft lime mortar that has been mined in France since 1851. The group opted for lime because it was the mortar of choice for most 19th-century masons and, unlike modern cement mortar, lime responds to moisture and weather, expanding and contracting as the temperature fluctuates. At $22-30 a bag, St. Astier is double the cost of many U.S. lime mortars. But, Peet says, because it is fired at a lower temperature, St. Astier is also stronger and more flexible.

Much of the chimney damage resulted from aluminum casing that had been placed over the chimney's cap to prevent water and debris from entering the stack. The casing had not allowed the chimney to "breathe," which Gwilliam said exacerbated the moisture problem.

Linda Osborne, president of the Alden Kindred of America, said the restoration couldn't wait because, if the chimney had toppled, it might have taken half of the house with it.

"It should be a matter of pride for a community that they have the actual physical structures surviving and not just the stories," says Alden House curator Jim Baker.

The project was a powerful experience for the masons.

"All of the sudden, we're doing the very same thing these [masons] did 350 years ago, and it makes you shiver," says Peet. "There's a connection between you and someone you don't even know - especially with brick masons. The tools have not changed a lot."

That connection to the past transformed the work from restorative to investigative, allowing the masonry team to follow their curiosity and begin to unravel some mysteries.

"This is a puzzle," Gwilliam says. As the project progressed, the masons confirmed what legend has held true for decades: the existing house was not the first Alden home in Duxbury. Though the present Alden home was built in 1653, analysts at Columbia University determined that some of the wood from the house's kitchen, roof and sill - the support that runs along the perimeter and bears most of the structure's weight - dated back to 1628.

When the masons reordered new brick to replace damaged sections of the chimney, they discovered another surprise: many of the original bricks came from Cook Brick Plant, a factory that rested on land purchased from an Alden.

Sharing that knowledge with the community moved the house's history from being static to dynamic, says Gwilliam. And it made both the Alden House visitors and the masons think about the restoration and the house's history in a new way.

The mason team has opened up their work to the public before, but never so intimately. Usually the masons keep a five-foot workspace, sectioned off by tape, between them and the onlookers. This time, there was no barrier. And visitors weren't shy about asking questions.

"I didn't really learn history until I started working in restoration," says mason Lawrence Waller. "When you're discussing [your work] with people, it makes you learn more. You have to push yourself a little bit further. You have to think a little bit deeper."

About the Author

Heather Gehlert is a managing editor at AlterNet.


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