Taking pains to recraft Annapolis' past

Maryland Journal


In Annapolis brick mason William Forsythe's workshop, he combines varying parts of lime, sand and a bit of Portland cement to make his own 100 different mixes of mortar. Oyster shells might enter the equation if he has a 17th- or 18th-century pile to repoint. His late father's handwriting is on the wall: "Keep Shop Clean."

Forsythe, 68, has plied his craft in Annapolis since his apprentice days 50 years ago. He has worked on many historic houses and public buildings - as well as building walls and walkways that add to the city's Colonial charm.

"You wonder who was there before you," he says. "These people couldn't go to Home Depot for sand, but to the seashore and the creeks."

Or, as Robert A. Lusko Jr., who restores old windows and doors, says: "Your ghost will be here after you're gone."

Master artisans are indispensable to Marylanders who dwell in registered historic districts, especially those who plan restoration projects for which they receive state and federal tax credits. Craftsmen who know how to join copper roofs and make wooden windows that comply with the standard "in like kind" - or, in the original period style - are high on many lists.

Historic preservation has become more popular, but Forsythe says his ways have not wavered: "Machines don't lay brick or nothing. I took a liking to it when I was young. I just try to match what's [already] there in the building."

A keen eye for the subtle shades and textures of mortar is only the starting point for achieving historical accuracy. Artisans like Forsythe must also be able to judge the extent of damage caused by pollution and time. In a city that polices its looks street by street, structure by structure, the best artisans hold themselves to account, Annapolis officials say.

There are not many of them, city officials say, and some centuries-old skills are becoming scarce.

"They do research and really look at the material itself," says Donna Hole, the city's chief of historic preservation. "Bill Forsythe has perfected his technique over many, many years." She adds, "What they have in common is patience. They are prepared to do something right rather than cut corners."

Hole reviews proposed improvement and restoration projects in the Annapolis historic district. Part of her job, she says, is confirming mortar samples for a city largely built and paved with brick, save for the Beaux-Arts granite of the Naval Academy. That includes any kind of repair or addition to a historic house's exterior.

"Old-school craftsmen have an integrity, a pride in a neat finish," she says

On a recent walk by the William Paca House, an 18th-century mansion in Annapolis built by an early governor, Forsythe looks up at the chimneys. From the sidewalk, he tells Robert Ruff, 26 - the fourth generation of his family-run Baltimore roofing business - that he first worked on top of the building when he was 22. A few blocks up Prince George Street, he says, he recently replaced a brick path cutting through the grounds of St. John's College.

Forsythe mentions that he once knew the younger man's grandfather, Charles Ruff. Then someone happens to stop his car to say hello. The driver, client Michael Allen, greets Forsythe and praises the mason as a "sculptor." Allen adds, "He knows bricks have to breathe."

Ruff and Forsythe take a ride to view two newly completed copper roofs by the Ruff company. Their shiny surfaces gleam at the corner of Duke of Gloucester and Conduit streets, but the sheen won't last long. In Chesapeake Bay air, copper oxidizes more quickly and develops a light-green patina - as seen on the skyline's Naval Academy Chapel dome Among architecture and history buffs, copper is fast becoming a fashionable look again - but pricey at $3 per pound.

For those who build new copper roofs using old skills, Ruff says, there's a thrill that goes with finding a sign of past handiwork-such as a 1946 copper penny or a panel that marks the roof's date and serves as a greeting across decades.

The Johns Hopkins Hospital dome's slate and copper roof in Baltimore, the old Maryland Opera House's tin roof in Annapolis and several Naval Academy slate and copper roofs are among the landmark projects his company has taken on in recent months and years, Ruff says.

But specialized skills and an eye for detail are not easy to come by in the work force. "Standing seams are for real craftsmen. Not everybody can make them. Soldering is a lost art," Ruff says.

Lusko, 41, has restored windows and doors on the oldest house and hospital in Annapolis and for some Smithsonian Institution-approved projects. He says much of his knowledge is self-taught or was gleaned from his grandfather, who was a machinist for the Ford Motor Co. He was also influenced by a fine-arts teacher who taught him form, he says.

Like Forsythe and others who study what went before, Lusko says he salvages as much of the original glass and wood as possible when he sets to work. Authenticity is everything, he explains.

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