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July 10, 2009

It rained a lot this spring. Rain was drumming down one afternoon in May when I heard a crash at the back of the house. What the hell was that? I thought. I went to take a look and saw to my horror that a section of bricks had fallen out of the wall in the back extension. I went back to my office and called Lenny.

Lenny Moreira is a former soccer player from Brazil. He was the next Pele until he blew out a knee at a young age. After that he spent the money left from his professional contract learning construction from his grandfather. He came to the United States, settled on Long Island, and started the It Only Takes One construction company. I had met Lenny in the fall of 1998 when my wife and I bought the house we lived in in the Village and needed some work done. Since then he had worked for our neighbors next door and across the street, and we had kept in touch.

Lenny came by the same afternoon to take a look. He shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “Bricks don’t just fall out of walls. At least they’re not supposed to.” The bricks – six or eight of them -- had formed part of an arch over a window. Now they were in the courtyard below where, fortunately, neither my tenants nor their dogs happened to be when the bricks fell. A glass-topped table did not fare so well.

This was a Thursday, May 9. Barbara and I spent a troubled weekend praying for the seemingly never-ending rain to stop. BUILDING COLLAPSES! headlines flashed in my mind. RESIDENTS EVACUATED! We weren’t worried just about ourselves. We had tenants on the ground and parlor floors, all of whom we considered not only tenants but friends.

I knew as well as Lenny did that bricks don’t just fall out of walls. Old houses – ours was built in 1845 and the extension at the back added in the 1880s – have checkered ownership, usage, and maintenance histories. Ours was built as a one-family, rented, chopped up into four apartments, used as a pottery school. At some point after 1940 it had its stoop removed, and in the 1970s was configured as a three-family house with floor-through apartments on the ground and parlor floors and a duplex on the third and fourth floors. That was where we lived, first as renters, starting in 1984. Not long after that we had a wooden deck built over the extension.

The deck rested on four-inch by four-inch treated wood posts mounted on the extension’s bearing walls. We had known for some time we would have to replace the deck but kept putting it off. Now I wondered if the weight of the deck and the incessant rain, combined with accumulated water damage over many years, had literally squeezed the bricks out of the wall. What about the rest of the wall, much of which was hidden under stucco? Could it be trusted to support not only the deck but also the planters full of trees and flowers that Barbara had tended lovingly to produce a brilliant garden. It was a pretty garden, but also a heavy one. The missing bricks told us that, at the very least, we were going to have to tear the deck down and replace it.

When the weather broke on Sunday, Barbara and I carried the plants we could handle downstairs and placed them on temporary loan to the Greenwich House Pottery School courtyard next door. That night we grilled steaks and said goodbye to our deck.

Lenny’s crew showed up on Monday morning. They are mostly from Ecuador, where builders work with mortar and bricks much older than ours. Their leader is Carlos, who is short, smooth and brown, soft-spoken, slightly paunchy, and a genius who can solve any construction problem. Lenny and the other workers call him Carlito. I don’t speak much Spanish but I think it is a sign of affection and respect.

The scaffolding and boards had to go from the street into the backyard through the ground floor apartment. For this I needed to babysit the two border terriers, Harry and Buddy, who live there. By noon the crew had erected scaffolding along the side of the extension to the roof, shored up the window from sill to lintel under the area of missing bricks, and hoisted down the rest of the plants. A courtyard full of scaffolding and juniper trees with their root balls wrapped in black plastic, to say nothing of a couple of masonry-mixing tubs, did not make our ground floor tenants happy. But they had already given notice that they were moving when their lease was up.

The deck was gone by the end of the day Tuesday. We were ready to rebuild. Or so I thought.

As I write this the scaffolding has expanded to incorporate a roof over the work area. A roof was needed because the extension is being torn down to the bone. You could pull the bricks out of the wall by hand. The mortar between them was nothing but sand. Four-by-four posts in my tenants’ bedrooms shore up the floors overhead. Barbara’s office in the extension has them, too, to support the roof. Outside, we have a cutaway drawing of brick and frame construction. The workers are stripping the brick away and the walls are down to the lathe at the third floor level. The mortar just isn't there; it's sand. It looks like they'll have to go all the way down to the ground before they start rebuilding.

Stay tuned for future highlights including the need to be aware of the potential of grave harm from water damage, the challenges of construction work in New York City (we pulled a permit for our work on the day before applications were to be calendared pending the creation of a South Village Historic District), landlord-tenant relations, and all the perils and joys of an old house.

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