It’s been over two years since I was last at the Quincy Smelter, when I was lucky enough to be given an all-access pass to the site thanks to the generosity of the Quincy Smelter Association and Franklin Township. Since then a lot has changed at the site, as a great deal of federal and private monies have found their way to the old facility in an attempt to stabilize and rehabilitate the many historic structures that can be found there. This summer, especially, the old smelting plant has been a hub of activity as contractors and park staff have been working feverishly to enclose and secure those buildings before winter’s impending arrival. This work involves three major components: the boarding up of windows and doorways, the installation of metal sheeting on building roofs, and the repair and repointing of the complex’s sandstone structures.
As part of my ongoing collaboration with the Keweenaw Heritage Center in the production of their sandstone exhibit, I returned to the old smelter site this week to take a closer look at the sandstone component of that rehabilitation project. Thanks to KNHP ranger Ron Jones we were provided an opportunity to talk to the park’s stone mason Steve D’Agostino, who was in charge of the masonry work going on at the site. Steve was gracious enough to show us around the construction site and explain all the work that he and his team (consisting of just Steve, his brother, and a few tech students amazingly enough) had been doing. And what amazing work it was too.
Though from a distance these beautiful old sandstone buildings at the smelter look to have held up relatively well over the years, a closer look reveals structures that have actually suffered greatly from a half century’s worth of abandonment and harsh Keweenaw weather. The main problem is erosion, as can be clearly seen in the photo above. Sandstone by its very nature is extremely brittle, especially the white stripped variety used heavily in these buildings. Not only does the sandstone blocks themselves erode away, so too does the mortar holding those blocks in place. Once the mortar goes, so goes the blocks and the building’s walls start to crumble down.
Here’s another look at that erosion issue as demonstrated along the smelter’s massive reverberatory building -the structure in which the smelting furnaces themselves were located. While the wall may look in relatively good shape, you also notice the spaces between the stone blocks have been completely dug out – leaving large open cracks between the blocks. You can also see a large collection of debris forming around the wall’s base – flakes and pieces of sandstone that have broken off the wall over time. If left unchecked, it will soon be the larger blocks falling out of the wall, and before long the whole wall will be compromised.
To combat this problem and insure these walls survive another century, Steve and his team have been working to refill those gaps between blocks with new mortar – a process known as repointing.
Here’s that same wall, after it’s been repointed by Steve and his crew. It’s an amazing difference, one made even more impressive after having seen the wall as it looked previously. This is what the wall would have originally looked when it was first built over a century ago. A rather incredible change considering all it took was a bit of new mortar thrown between the joints.
Actually repointing is a bit more complicated then that. A standard sandstone “joint” consists of two types of mortar. The first type is strictly structural, a cement like “glue” that holds the sandstone blocks together. The second type is more ornamental, consisting of a bead of mortar that extends past the structural mortar. This beading – seen in the photo above – is stained with iron in order to give it a similar red tinge as the sandstone surrounding it. This makes this mortar more expensive to produce then the structural type – which used simple stamp sand as an aggregate. Steve has to apply both mortars when repointing these joints.
Another major issue with the sandstone buildings at the smelter related to the numerous stone arches built atop windows and doorways. These arches my appear to be simply ornamental, but their failure – as seen in the image above – can result in a cascading failure all throughout the structure. In this case a block from the arch has come loose, resulting in a crack that has propagated up the side of the wall. The crack presence then allows for more water to enter the wall, and even more erosion to occur. Before long the entire wall becomes compromised, just from a single loose stone in that ornamental arch.
Because of this, Steve’s team is also tasked with the repair and repointing of any arch found throughout the smelter’s compliment of sandstone structures. You can see such repointing and repair on these two arches from the smelter’s cupola building. Over time the slightly off color of the new mortar will age to a more subtle tone and blend in more readily. For now, however, that bright pink color serves to identify portions of the old building that have been successfully repaired.
Here’s a shot of the old reverberatory building as it looked two years ago during my last visit to the site. Like before, you can see quite a bit of loose stones and missing mortar scattered about the wall. Fast forward to today and you have a different view…
Same wall, but this time showing the tell-tale signs of pink mortar in a few spots – evidence of successful repair work. In addition to the walls, the old building has also been more securely boarded up. The large hole on the right side of the frame has yet to be repaired, but the sandstone will be replaced and the doorway sealed up like the rest in the near future.
Of course this massive hole and it impending repair asks another important question: where do you get replacement parts for a building material that is no longer being quarried? Turns out you have to turn to recycled parts from old sandstone buildings that have taken turns for the worse.
The supply of sandstone blocks used at the smelter – some of which can be seen in the photo above – are the demolished remains of another old sandstone building that hadn’t been as lucky as the smelter in surviving the ensuing century. In this case that unlucky structure was the old Sacred Heart Church in Calumet, which burned down sometime in the 70’s. That destroyed church’s sandstone walls were torn down and collected by a local demolition company, who then buried the stone in dirt to preserve it for future construction projects that may require the rare stone in the future – like the smelter’s inevitable facelift.
When a large block is required, Steve finds a suitable stone from the piles seen in the back of the image above and cleans them and reshapes them to fit his needs (two such repurposed blocks can be seen on the pallet in the foreground). In most cases Steve doesn’t require such large blocks as seen here, however, as most of his repair work involves the application of thin veneer pieces atop eroded stones. But in some cases these large blocks are needed – especially in areas of the building that have suffered more invasive degradation.
First of these more heavily degraded places is the gabled ends of the Cupola building, seen in the photo above. After the building’s roof collapsed, these stone walls were left totally exposed to the elements. This resulted in a great deal of damage to the top of the walls, seen on the left side of the image above. The wall on the right has been repaired – thanks to more than a few old blocks from the Sacred Heart Church.
Besides those gabled ends, that creeping damage from the missing roof has also been transmitted to the rest of the Cupola’s upper walls including the incredibly impressive destruction seen above. Here both the upper walls and the old arches that once graced the second floor windows are both gone. It’s utter chaos, and by the lack of mortar to be found along the rest of the wall you get the feeling the whole thing is about to fall down.
But now take a look at it…
Though the scaffolding makes it a bit difficult to see, there’e no mistaking the fresh new sandstone arches that now cover those very same windows. There’s also quite a noticeable difference in the surrounding sandstone walls, which now are nicely repointed and cleaned. Its an amazing transformation, and a great harbinger of things to come for the smelter complex.
Unfortunately our time with Steve was limited, as the smelter was very much a work in progress and he had quite a bit more to accomplish. But we knew that we left the site in great hands, and that already the old smelter is in much greater shape then perhaps it ever has. I was looking forward to coming back yet again when all the work currently in progress is finished, and to see the smelter as it was originally meant to be seen.