Giving Credit Where Credit is Due
By: Carl Helbig
Last year September, I was asked for the first time to be a docent at a house on the Edgewater Historical Society’s Annual Home Tour. It was a most interesting experience, marred only by a remark I found disturbing.
While reading the short history and description of my assigned home in the tour booklet, I noticed that only the architect was mentioned. I told the owner that I felt the builder was important too. She indicated that the architect had all the “smarts” - knowing the correct proportions to make all the rooms, windows, etc. - and deserved all the credit.
I was shocked! Having been a bricklayer for 40 years, I feel a certain compassion for the tradesmen who built that home almost 100 years ago. My father was a bricklayer before me and almost fits into that same time period.
It isn’t that architects are not important. If we didn’t have architects, every tradesman would probably build homes just like the last one, from memory. Why waste time looking at a plan? This is exactly what tract home builders do. They have only three or so plans for all their homes. For variety they sometimes turn the plan over and build it the opposite way.
In a recession, tradesmen walk the streets with architects. Without plans the builders have nothing to build. Without builders the architects’ dreams remain ideas, houses without substance.
What about the tradesmen that labored at this elegant old home on the EHS tour so long ago?
Most probably, they were Swedish “greenhorns” (a disrespectful term of that era). They came to America for work and they found it. Their foreman knew numbers but words had to be explained. Most of the language spoken on the job was Swedish. Drinking had to be controlled.
It was a noisy job, with men calling for different materials, especially when they got high up, and apprentices being reprimanded. The journeymen (skilled tradesmen) learned the trade in the “old country.” They were proud of their heritage and took pride in their work. Their own peers were their worst critics.
How much a job cost and how it was done were not as important as how well it was done. The tradesmen were not building future slums, but rather homes that would last long after they were gone from this earth.
There were two kinds of power in those days: man and horse. The hole for the basement was dug by hand with steel wheel barrows or horse and scoop. In this area, sand from the excavation was often used in mortar for the brick foundation walls and chimney.
Material had to be ordered in person and was delivered with a horse and wagon. The foreman was given a blueprint and told, “Build this.” From a pile of lumber he had to create a home that matched the blueprint. Quite a challenge!
No one was allowed to look at the blueprint except the foreman and the architect. Depending on how busy the latter was elsewhere determined how much time he spent on any particular job. His concerns were quality and appearance. Work continued under almost all weather conditions that were still conducive to yielding a quality product.
If an owner bought beer, etc., while the boom was under construction, or threw a party for the men when the roof was in place, the workers would fly an American flag from the roof to show appreciation. If nothing was done, an upside-down corn broom was shown as a notice to other tradesmen. When was the last time an American flag flew from your home?
I’m sure there is a special place in heaven for tradesmen and their helpers. Suppose we get there and they come to us and say: “How did you like the home you had that we built so long ago? Did you enjoy it? Were you comfortable? Did you sleep well? We were only able to work on building it. We never had a chance to sleep there. We’re so glad so many families have been able to enjoy the fruits of our labor all these many years.” I hope we get a chance to meet them.
Editors Note: EHS took Carl’s sentiments to heart. This year’s Annual Home Tour credited four builders for their valuable contributions - Ockerlund, A. E. Norman, Bakker and A. Lundberg.