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Rebuilding City Hall

September 27, 2011

WOONSOCKET — You'll pardon Jerry St. Angelo if he seems so above it all.
After all, he is.
At least when he's working.
Like tree-trimmers and steeplejacks, St. Angelo spends most of his professional life higher above sea-level than the rest of us.
He's a restoration stonemason, a job that combines the talents of Spiderman and the patience of a brain surgeon. A foreman for RD Preservation, St. Angelo is in charge of a crew that's repairing dangerously unstable masonry on the facade of City Hall.
Just don't call him a bricklayer.
“A lot of guys can do this,” he says, hastily stacking a pile of loose red bricks into something that looks like a wall. “Not a lot of guys can repair old work. It's part of the masonry field that's a dying breed.”
Getting up high to do his job doesn't frighten him, says St. Angelo. The 46-year-old father of four is a fourth-generation stonemason who was climbing roofs alongside his father when he was still a young boy.
He says he always tells people he didn't learn his trade. He lived it.
He's been living it at 169 Main St. since mid-August, when he and his crew began assembling a web-like grid of scaffolding around City Hall that allows the workers to reach the very roofline of the 66-foot-tall building.
“It looks more ominous than it is,” he says. “If I said to you, go walk up there on that plank, you'd get used to it. It's like anything else. It might seem a little scary at first, but after a while you'd realize it's secure up there and you'd get comfortable.”
Right.
It hasn't been scary for the folks working inside of City Hall to see boot-clad workmen climbing past the windows — just interesting, says a public works secretary on the third floor.
“It looks like they're walking on air,” she says.
But it's not being up high that frightens St. Angelo – it's what might happen if he didn't get there to do his job.
That's what crossed his mind when he and his crew started examining dozens of granite blocks at the very top of the facade of City Hall. They weighed anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand pounds each.
The mortar holding them in place had eroded over time. In other words, nothing was securing those massive blocks but the stones underneath them.
The largest of them was the cornerstone — the one with the date of City Hall's construction, 1891, etched into it. It weighs 4,600 pounds.
St. Angelo knows because the high-tech construction crane that hoisted it from its slot is equipped with a digital scale that automatically weighs anything it picks up.
It was a disaster waiting to happen, says St. Angelo.
“The mortar was so badly deteriorated those stones were almost falling off,” he says. “They were literally just sitting there. Eventually there could have been a major catastrophy.”
Mayor Leo T. Fontaine says the risk has probably existed for well over two years. Shortly after he took office, workers noticed water seeping into the building from windows on the north side. Officials first thought the roof was the problem, but forensic engineers later determined it wasn't the roof at all, but the fact that water had gotten behind the outer walls of the building.
The water expanded and contracted according to the spring-and-thaw cycle of the seasons, causing the mortar – the glue that holds the masonry together – to deteriorate over time.
Although some bits of structural material fell to the sidewalk this spring, Fontaine says the city is lucky nothing more serious happened, and that no one was injured. The city is also fortunate to have secured the services of RD Preservation, which bid the job for about $200,000, a fraction of what other companies wanted.
“Normally we'd be skeptical of somebody that came in that low,” said Fontaine. “In this case the engineers we'd had looking at the problem were very happy that these guys bid on the job.”

AS UNLIKELY as it might seem, the part of the job that requires skills most like brain surgery – not brute strength – involves lifting the heaviest blocks so the bad mortar beneath them can be replaced with new, strong stuff, says St. Angelo. If something goes wrong when you're lifting blocks that big, St. Angelo says, you know it's not going to end up pretty.
So you go slow, and pay attention.
The skills of the crane operator were critical, says St. Angelo. He describes a zen-like oneness between the operator and his state-of-the-art machine, from the Imperatore Construction Company. The RD Preservation crew secured the stone to the crane with nylon straps, using something called a coffin loop. It's a special way of tying the bands that gives the nylon cords double the strength of a simple noose.
Not a word was spoken as the crane operator and the masons gently lifted the stone from its cradle.
“It was all gestures,” says St. Angelo. “All hand signals.”
St. Angelo's reverence for antique architecture is apparent when he talks about his trade. At one point, he lapses into a story about the Arcade Building in Providence – often called the first indoor mall in America – and how the granite slabs used to build it were dragged to the work site by horse drawn carts from a quarry all the way in Johnston.
“This is just a beautiful building,” he says of City Hall, an edifice where, long ago, a U.S. senator from Illinois named Lincoln once gave a speech as he campaigned to become president. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
It's hard to be sure without more research, says St. Angelo, but the facade of City Hall is made from pink granite that was probably quarried in Westerly or Milford, Mass., judging from the age of the building. Today the flat surfaces of granite used in construction are mostly cut with power saws, but those on City Hall were etched clean by hand, with chisels and sledgehammers.
City Hall is not St. Angelo's first dalliance with restoration masonry in Woonsocket. He and his company have been here before, shoring up a number of other local landmarks – among them Holy Family Church on South Main Street, Precious Blood Church on Park Avenue, and St. Francis House on Blackstone Street.
His company has done work on some of the oldest buildings in Rhode Island, including the John Brown House on the East Side, and many buildings at Brown University. He was once close enough to shake the hand of the Independent Man, the bronze statue atop the State House, when he repaired the masonry on the fourth-largest marble dome in the world.
But the tallest building he ever had to scale was in Boston.
He's never forgotten the address, or how high.
“Seven-five, one-oh-one State Street,” he says. “Six hundred, sixty feet off the ground.”

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