Monday, September 27, 2021

Bricks, blocks & the Stephens House walls

The scaffolding that has embellished the north wall of Chariton's A.J. Stephens House for several weeks will come down soon as repointing and repairs to the masonry are completed.

Mike McMillen, of McMillen Brick and Stone, Corydon, started work several weeks ago on the old house, built in 1911 by Andrew Jackson Stephens for his family and owned by the Lucas County Historical Society for more than 50 years.

It's a solidly built old house that's held up well, but so far as we could determine had never been comprehensively repointed, just patched when something went wrong. That was especially evident on the north wall, which bears the brunt of Iowa's sometimes harsh weather. While much of the original mortar is intact, a considerable amount had deteriorated and needed to be replaced. 

The house is a frame building clad in wood over which a combination of brick and rusticated masonry block has been applied.

Mike devoted a lot of attention to matching the color and consistency of the original lime mortar before going to work --- and has become a familiar figure since on the museum campus.

His biggest challenges have been on the north wall where the upper courses of the fireplace chimney (long since demolished above the roofline, capped and covered by the roof) had to be rebuilt. The keystone arches above some windows were in bad shape, too.

And among the biggest challenge of all --- replacing the lowest course of blocks at the base of the building at the northeast corner. The culprit here --- and elsewhere around the building --- is the coat of masonry cement that covers the blocks at this level. This probably seemed like a good idea at the time --- "protect the blocks" --- but the cement seals the softer blocks, designed to breathe, trapping moisture and causing them to deteriorate. If the cement coating comes loose, as it did here, the blocks crumble.

I suspect that work on the house will continue in smaller increments as time passes, but it's a relief for now to know that the worst of the damage has been repaired or stabilized.

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