Over the winter of 2021 I undertook the making of three stained-glass panels for a masonry customer, to fill segmental spaces over a window and two doors. As one not accustomed to working with stained glass, my solder joints were a bit thick (“rustic,” I called them), but they increased the strength of the panels, and given some black patina, pretty much disappeared in the light of their settings.
Hillsdale County is full of nineteenth and twentieth century buildings, and John McCormick is the stone mason capable of restoring these buildings to their original grandeur.
“I like bringing old buildings back to life the way they should be,” McCormick said. “Even more so than building something new, I like to see old buildings reborn.”
McCormick has been a mason for more than 20 years. He began his journey in masonry when he saw an ad in the Detroit Free Press for apprentices at Bricklayers’ and Allied Craftworkers’ Local 1. For 12 weeks, McCormick learned production brick and blocklaying, which serve as the basis for masonry jobs. He then worked for union contractors for the next year and a half before achieving the financial means to work for himself.
Prior to starting his own business, McCormick Masonry, McCormick spent two years reading books to ensure he knew everything he could about the craft.
McCormick’s first job within Hillsdale included completing major restoration work on the 1853 Will Carleton Poorhouse. He explained that his work on the Poorhouse was non-destructive, meaning that instead of taking stones out, he repaired them.
Most of his work on the Poorhouse focused on repairing the sandstone “cornerstone quoins,” which line the corners of the building.
“I repaired the cornerstones with a French mortar mix called Lithomex,” McCormick said.
For most projects, McCormick said he has to replace the mortar between the joints connecting the stones. Most of the mortar mixes used on older buildings are too hard for the joints, according to McCormick.
“If too hard of a mix is used, water can’t evaporate from the joints, so it goes through brick faces and spawls them,” he said. “Water has to evaporate through the mortar joints, which need to breathe.”
McCormick said he makes his own mortar for projects by mixing cement-based mortars with Type S Mason Lime. Adding the lime, McCormick said, makes the mortar soft enough to fill the joints between old brick or stone.
Hillsdale County Historical Society’s JoAnne Miller said that she was very impressed by McCormick’s work on the Poorhouse.
“John was a careful worker who was familiar with the way to restore the cobblestone structure so that it was true to the original,” Miller wrote in an email.
McCormick said he likes repairing things that are going to last. He added that most of his projects involve cleaning up mistakes from previous repair efforts.
“There’s lots of sloppiness, and I like to clean those up,” McCormick said. “I’m very meticulous in going about and repairing them.”
McCormick has passed on some of his skills to the next generation by helping his nephew Paul Bilicki build a career in masonry. Bilicki began his journey in masonry observing McCormick, and now works as a foreman in the facade restoration department for RAM Construction services out of Detroit.
“I observed John doing masonry work, and I found it interesting because it was building with an artistic aspect,” Bilicki said.
When Bilicki started off as an apprentice, he came to Hillsdale to help McCormick with a few projects, one of which included brick replacement work in the basement of the Keefer Hotel. Now at RAM, Bilicki said he works on a variety of projects that range in scope and size. Some projects may take three days, while others may require years of work.
“A lot of the things we do at RAM are not one person gigs,” Bilicki said. “I have a lot of respect for John because of how much he can do on his own.”
Bilicki said McCormick would be able to do more projects if he had a big crew to work with, but he added the quality of work would not be as good if McCormick involved more people.
After working for several years as a mason, Bilicki echoed McCormick and said the best part of masonry is restoring something to its original beauty.
“There’s just such a satisfaction of bringing something back to life,” Bilicki said. “It’s just like nursing a wounded bird.”
This is the article from the Collegian by Julia Mullins.
This 19th-century physician’s house and clinic once had a double door for admission of patients. The door’s arch remnants are seen here. It’s not known why the double door opening was bricked in, and a single door with a steel lintel installed in its place.
After removing the lintel, I also had to remove more bricks than required for a new arch, the form of which is here in place. The double-door infill bricks were not stack-bonded to the originals, and the whitish remnant arch joints were hairline cracked. I didn’t care to have a hundred pounds of bricks falling down on me. Ample arch form support was another worry, so a couple of the homeowners’ 2x4s were scrounged up to brace the form.
A segmental double arch was built to the same height of the original, semi-circular arches; a flat arch over the door; and the tympanum—a fancy name for the infill.
The double-door outlines have begun to lighten up and disappear. The repairs to the left of the door’s bottom half are fresh here, still dark. The bricks just above the foundation stones were repaired after this picture was taken. A house-side porch will be extended around the corner, and this entrance provided some steps for the first time since … who knows how long.
The metal “flowers” to the right were each visited by a hummingbird one day.
This dropped, slopped-over flat arch endured a number of attempted fixes that were to no avail. The idiot who ran the drainage pipe through an arch end-brick might have done the most damage.
After removing the bricks and cleaning them, I dry-laid the first course to check on its spacing.
It is good to correct another mess, but I sure wish DIY-ers wouldn’t make such messes in the first place.
Forty eight-inch concrete blocks were on the pallet in the foreground when I fetched them, and I’ll not put that 1,600-pound burden on my truck again. The blocking-up going on here was in an area where chintzy plastic blocks from California filled the entire space. Many of them had cracked, and their insulation value even as new was probably negligible.
The new glass blocks are nominally 8x8x4”, quite substantial things. The customers and I were impressed with their bulk.
I infilled a small area on either side of the lintel with small stones, and said that if the little stones are a visual distraction, they could be painted when the new concrete block is painted. I hate to see stones painted and was glad to hear that the customers would not paint-erase what I called my “signature.”
The male half of my latest customers, posing before a finished job at their place.
Plastic block filled this whole blocked-in space, and we had no trouble pushing, kicking and hammering it out. Many of the plastic blocks were waterlogged. I told this fellow that he could’ve raised goldfish in them, but that their swimming confines might have been inhumane. He hadn’t noticed the water retention of the plastic blocks.
Members of a home association nestled into spruce and pine woods requested this fieldstone structure. Stone slabs for caps were not wanted, just a slightly rounded top of the rough building material. The structure is seven feet long, around 48 inches high.
The sign itself was engraved by James Littley, Jarsa & Company, of Hillsdale, Mich. This sandstone from India is extremely dense, and I dared not attempt to drill mounting holes through it. It is mounted with clips attached to backing brick instead. The sign's back was slathered with clear silicone, its bottom rests on fieldstones, and all sides were mortared in.
Daughter of John McCormick, and website designer/builder.
(mason, photographer, writer)
(stone collector and editor)