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Broken Home

The problem: rusty lintels. The solution: tear the roof off the sucker.

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Broken Home

The problem: rusty lintels. The solution: tear the roof off the sucker.

By Tessa Dratt

My husband and I moved into our 60-year-old stone town house six years ago, and every year we'd sustained some kind of water damage. We replaced the roof. We had the entire structure tuck-pointed. But water still appeared, discoloring a window frame, throwing a huge crack across a newly painted ceiling. Almost every month some wall turned damp or some window started dripping.

We consulted experts. They stood around our little courtyard off Wellington and inspected, making notes and drawings on coffee-stained clipboards.

"This building's held up by rust alone," said the general contractor, a look of disgust on his face. "What you've got here is no laughing matter."

We weren't laughing.

"Untenable," proclaimed one structural engineer. "It's happening all over Chicago."

"Dangerous!" said the second opinion.

"It's not pretty," sighed the master mason. "Big job, but we can do it. It'll take my whole crew though. Lintels are all rotted."

"What's a lintel?" I asked.

Water had invaded and overcome our lintels, he said. They were soggy and bloated like the pages of a waterlogged book. They had to be replaced, all nine of them, or in time the entire building would collapse.

"Yes, but what is a lintel?" I said.

A lintel, I learned, is the horizontal beam across the top of a window that supports, at least in part, the structure above it. Our lintels were steel and had rusted. Much of the limestone facade of our building would have to be dismantled to replace them.

We received glossy envelopes in the mail with neatly typed pages of bids all ending in many zeros. We didn't sleep much.

Ten Polish masons arrived promptly at 7:30 one bright October morning. Moments later the boss showed up to go over the specs with John, the foreman. Only two of the crew, John and Wally, spoke any English.

The men unloaded their truck, set out and arranged bricks, planks, interlocking steel poles, bags of mortar. They erected a scaffold that encircled our house, scampering up and down ladders, juggling saws, hammers, and buckets, while John stood idly by, smoking one Marlboro Light after another.

The job was to take four or five days. I watched them take the huge stones down and stack them on the scaffold and hoist up buckets filled with mortar to slather between layers of stone. Saws whined, showering sparks. The air filled with the smell of welded metal.

I learned to talk their talk, tossing around words like "mullions" and "copings" and "flashing" and "weeps." After a while it dawned on me that no matter what I said to John or Wally, they always had the same response. They smiled, nodded, then pointed to the sky and shook their heads. October was a very rainy month.

Days stretched into weeks. Every time I left home I came back to find another bite taken out of the house, until there was no more parapet, no more corner above the master bedroom, and nothing between the second floor and the sky. When it rained, a single mason showed up to lay down sheets of bright blue plastic that flapped along the sides of our decapitated home.

When the sun shone the full contingent of masons appeared. On those mornings I awoke to the sound of Wally's smooth tenor singing Verdi arias in Italian. He sang only first thing in the morning. I once carefully pulled up the shade and saw his legs and heavy boots planted firmly on the scaffold directly outside.

The neighbors who owned similar town homes eyed my husband and me with a mixture of sympathy, suspicion, fear, even loathing as the work continued to grow in scope. We became a neighborhood curiosity. Local dog owners changed their routes so as to check on the progress. The old woman who lives down the street would park her wheelchair outside and chain-smoke Pall Malls.

"It's not safe sitting out here," I warned her. "There's all sorts of debris flying around. You could get hurt."

"Never you mind, honey," she said from behind a cloud of smoke. "Watching these guys take your house apart is the most fun I've had in years. Let's just see if they can put it back together again." She broke into raucous laughter that led to an alarming coughing fit.

Doormen of nearby high-rises began to wave and ask me on a regular basis how the work was coming along. I was touched. Then our mail carrier, Gerald, told me there was a pool going. The doormen, UPS drivers, FedEx deliverers had all placed bets on how long it would take the masons to finish. "Gotta be 300 bucks in the pot by now," he reported as he handed me my mail. "Any news?"

In about the third week the parapet began to reappear section by section. The corners of the house were reconstructed. The ugly mud-colored mortar dried to match the gray of the limestone.

The truck pulled away for the last time one afternoon in early November. It had taken four weeks. The only evidence of the masons' work was a thin coating of dust on the windows, grass, and shrubs and a small scrap of blue plastic that had got stuck in the mortar under one of the capstones and was waving in the breeze.

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