Federal Hill raises wall of discord

September 05, 1992|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Baltimore's Federal Hill is known for the panoramic view from the top.

But lately, the view at the bottom is drawing the attention, and it's not favorable.

A growing chorus of contractors and preservationists has criticized the quality of construction of a stone retaining wall, which is being rebuilt as part of a $900,000 stabilization of the hill's north slope.

The Maryland Historical Trust, a state agency that monitors work on historic landmarks such as Federal Hill, last month asked the general contractor to correct flaws that its officers have noted, ranging from gaps between stones to use of mortar that appears too pink.

William Pencek, chief of the trust's Office of Preservation Services, said the contractor, Potts and Callahan, has been put on notice that work from now on must adhere to the city's specifications. The Trust also asked the contractor to use a gentler method of lifting the top stones in place so the workers don't leave holes in the stones.

"We're trying to get a finished appearance that as closely as possible replicates what was there before. It hasn't been easy, but that's what we're striving for," Mr. Pencek said. City officials and a representative for the contractor say they're doing all they can to maintain the integrity of the wall, which dates from around 1900.

Baltimore's parks department launched the reconstruction project last spring to stabilize the slope and prevent the cave-ins and erosion that occurred in the past.

The 660-foot-long stone retaining wall had to be rebuilt, officials say, because it had begun to collapse under the weight of the hill.

Instead of reconstructing a freestanding stone wall, however, the contractor has cut the original stones down to a depth of 18 inches and is using them as a veneer for a reinforced concrete wall erected where the stone wall used to be.

City officials approved that method of construction as part of the slope stabilization work, which is funded half by the city and half by the state.

The strongest criticism has come from local stonemasons such as Robert Marsili, 61, an Old World-style craftsman who bid for the work and did not get it. He says he believes the entire wall should come down and be rebuilt.

"It's a disgrace. Nothing is done with any kind of care or skill," he said. "Years ago, an inspector would throw you off the job if he saw work like this. Do they take no pride at all?

"What they're gambling on is that once they get so much done, nobody will have the heart to tell them to dismantle it," he added. "Now, it's not too late," he said.

"It's pathetic," agrees Mike Dayberry, a 38-year-old stonemason who has worked for two competitors of Mr. Marsili over the past nine years. "The stones are too far apart in some areas, too close in others. They go uphill. They go downhill. The joints are crooked. They're not finished properly."

Bill Bauer, a private building inspector and preservationist who lives in Fells Point, said, "The lines of the wall should be pleasingly right to the eye. Nothing about this wall is pleasingly right to the eye."

Mr. Marsili, who heads Marsili Construction Co., and his associate, Arthur Petrucci, cited more than a dozen problems during a recent visit to the wall.

They contend it is not plumb -- that is, true to the vertical plane -- and that its horizontal surfaces are uneven. They point out areas where very thin stones have already cracked under the weight of heavier stones above, areas where the mortar changes from one color to another, and 7-inch and 8-inch crevices where there is no mortar at all.

They note ledges where water collects, spots where the stones touch when they shouldn't, and fist-sized gaps between stones. The latest concern, they say, is the use of stones that weren't taken from the original wall, jeopardizing the uniformity of the wall's appearance.

Mr. Pencek said his office inspected the proposed substitute stones and determined they are "close enough" to the original that they may be used.

Gennady Schwartz, chief of capital development for the city Department of Recreation and Parks, described Mr. Marsili as a citizen who was initially helpful with his advice but who has since become a hindrance with his incessant complaints about the wall.

Richard Hine, vice president of Potts and Callahan, said Mr. Marsili is a "disgruntled" stonemason who wanted the job but lost out to another firm that submitted a lower bid -- $74,000 compared with more than $100,000 bid by Mr. Marsili.

When that subcontractor, Cast Construction, went out of business midway through the project, Potts and Callahan hired Cast's employees to keep the work going.

"Our work is governed by plans and specifications," Mr. Hine said. "There are city inspectors on the job. If we were not doing it properly, we wouldn't still be working there."

He said he invited anyone to compare the wall that his firm is building with the existing wall at Battery Avenue. "We have bent over backwards to do a good job," he said. "There's no problem with the craftsmanship. We are trying to make it as close to the shape and size and texture of the original wall as we can. We're doing the job right."

He added that what people see now is not the finished product. "We are going to repoint it and sandblast it at the very end, and we hope it will be satisfactory to everyone."

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