Leading by dragging my feet…

The diseased oak

The diseased oak

We had our building and grounds committee meeting last Thursday night, and it went pretty well. Sort of. Well, maybe not so great. Here’s what happened.

The main agenda item was to decide on our budget request for next year. We foresaw three major expenses:

  • Tree pruning and tree removal. Our trees are dropping dead branches onto the sidewalk and neighbors’ roofs (and some of their dead branches are threatening to fall on our roofs). The quotes we got ranged from $4,500 to $11,000 and were not quite apples-to-apples. I was given the task of asking the three tree services to come up with comparable bids and find out if they could break the job up so that we could do some this year and some next year.
  • Stopping the mortar in the church from falling on the choir’s and rector’s heads. This can be done by knocking off loose mortar and repointing (replacing the mortar between the joints) where necessary. The quote, from Company X, a respected restoration firm that we hired to replaster and repaint the outside of the rectory and repair our tower last year, is $19,500.
  • Fix the rectory basement. Four things are wrong:
    1. The plaster ceiling is falling down.
    2. Some areas of the brick (yes, brick) foundation need to be repointed.
    3. Raccoons and other animals can get in through the walls.


The mortar problem inside the church: Twenty or thirty years ago, one of my predecessors hired a company to repoint the inside of the church. Unfortunately, this company used the wrong type of mortar. Restoration companies now know that if you use hard cement to replace the softer mortar used 100 years ago, the hard mortar comes off the walls, sometimes taking pieces of stone with it.

The soft mortar, on the other hand, lets the building breathe moisture in and out. It’s designed to be “sacrificial,” in fact–rather than let the water infiltrate the stone and crack it, the mortar captures the water and it falls out (eventually) instead of the stone. Twenty or thirty years ago, most contractors didn’t know this.

The front of the rectory
The front of the rectory

Gaps in the rectory walls: For some reason, it was fashionable 100 years ago to move enormous buildings here and there. In our case, the rectory was spun 90 degrees on its foundation so that the front door faced the driveway rather than the street. The workmen didn’t tie the joists of the top three floors to the foundation–since the weight of the building itself keeps it in place, they probably didn’t see the need.

However, over time, it appears that gaps opened up between the building and the foundation. There had been serious water infiltration for many years (it stopped after we cleaned out all the leaders, gutters, and drains around the building as per Property Support manager Michael Rebic’s recommendation) and probably some areas at ground level rotted away.

If there were no raccoons, squirrel, and possums on Staten Island, the gaps wouldn’t matter that much. However, soon after our new rector and his family moved in, so did two raccoons, at least one of whom turned out to be rabid. (Flo of Critter Ridder trapped them both and took them to be tested; unfortunately, testing means taking out brain tissue, so that was the end for them.)


We have a quote for $26,000 to repair the rectory basement by Company X and a second quote for half that by a local company that we like a lot (Company Y), but not for historically sensitive work. Company Y doesn’t have expertise in restoring old buildings.

I didn’t even bring Company Y’s quote to the meeting because I don’t believe they’re qualified to do the rectory basement work. Their proposal calls for putting in a dropped ceiling that encapsulates the falling plaster ceiling, which would be fine except that it hides the gaps in the walls instead of fixing them. (I can just imagine the animals dashing around in the airspace between the old ceiling and the new one….)

Company X’s proposal calls for removing the plaster, adding wood blocking around the periphery to tie the building to the foundation, and closing off animal access. However, it didn’t address the missing mortar, which Company Y did put in their proposal.

Company X, with their restoration expertise, knows that they have to test the mortar in the church and replace it with an equivalent soft mortar. They’ll automatically make the same assumption in the rectory basement. Company Y, on the other hand, would have to be told to test the mortar and we’d have to supervise them to ensure they use the right mortar.

Here’s the problem: Two of the committee members really, really want to use Company Y. In fact, one of the two–a building contractor who does excellent work in his area of expertise and donates a lot of time to the church–tried to force the issue. He sees me as obstructive (and he’s correct), but I feel like the mom who won’t get a dog for her kids: Who’s going to take care of the dog? Not the kids.

In the case of the rectory, who’s going to make sure the job is done correctly? If we don’t hire experts, it’s going to be me, and I don’t have the time or the knowledge.

At the meeting, we decided that the rector and I will go through the basement again with Company X’s project manager and ask him about repointing and whether encapsulating most of the ceiling might be better than pulling it all down.

But long-term, I think there’s a better solution: Send the two dissenters to school. The Episcopal Diocese offers historic preservation seminars and conferences, and the rector agrees that it would be a great idea to send them and anyone else who’s interested.

It’s good to have dissenters. Anyone who cares enough to argue is valuable to a committee like ours, and I expect one or both of them to become committee chairs after me. But my bottom line has always been, “In 2108, I don’t want Building & Grounds cursing us for the stupid decisions we made in 2008, like we curse our predecessors.”

Sometimes, I’ve noticed, if you slow down, the right answer comes along in its own time. We’ll see.


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