In a struggle to be happy and free

Drystone Wall

Category: architecture Page 1 of 3


This past week was the most intense I’ve had at any school. We spent the week assembling a drystone wall. It is about 30 feet long and 40 inches high. That might not seem like a lot, but limestone is heavy, and we had no idea what we were doing.

20190923-102854 5D3 4M6C6776.CR2: 5D Mk.III, EF 17-40mm 1:4L @ 28mm, 1/160, f/5.6, 400 ISO
The excavation is nearly complete.

Our instructors for the week, Dean McLellan and Andre Lemieux, certainly remedied that situation! We started with a pile of stoned and the spray painted outline of where the wall was to go. Our first instruction was about the batter frame and how we use it to level the courses and have them narrow toward the top to strengthen the wall.

Once the batter frames were placed, we started with the foundation, digging to packed soil, and laid the first course. We quickly learned how to position the stones and how to fill the area between with smaller stones, a procedure called ‘hearting.’

I cannot stress how much of a physical labour shifting all this stone is. I was flabbergasted when Dean told me that he and Andre could have put up the wall in one day … a job that took the six of us nearly four days. But they’re the professionals! Even beyond their obvious skill, they have the physical conditioning that we do not. I have never been so wracked with muscle and back pain by any activity as this. Yes, I’m older, but my classmates (half of whom are in their twenties) echoed my complaints about stiff muscles, especially upon waking.

20190924-140434 5D3 4M6C6810.CR2: 5D Mk.III, EF 17-40mm 1:4L @ 34mm, 1/1600, f/8, 400 ISO
Work progresses. Note the wood batter frame on the left with the string to indicate the level of the top course.

Slowly but surely, our efforts at sizing the stones with a hammer became more and more accurate, our placement of those stones more creative and tight, and the courses more regular and level. Of course we made mistakes, some of which came back to complicate things later, but we learned and improved. We’re no where near pro calibre, but we learned the basics, and that was the whole point.

Over the first two days, the wall slowly took form. Slowly being the key word. Working with heavy stones so near the ground is hard work. As its height increased, our work seemed to speed up. By the end of the third day, we were pleased with what we saw. We had a wall!

The forth day, we laid the last course and the cope stones. Those are the heavy stones placed vertically to anchor the top course with their mass. With the wall being so short, we needed no through-stones to tie both sides together.

20190926-143602 5D3 4M6C6873.CR2: 5D Mk.III, EF 17-40mm 1:4L @ 32mm, 1/80, f/8, 100 ISO
The completed wall. Our instructors stand in front of the wall, my classmates behind.

What surprised me is that such a simple structure can be so strong and so ridiculously resilient. If the ground heaves and settles through freeze and thaw, the stones will move against each other as necessary, maintaining their relative positions. No cracks form because drystone construction not locked into place. It is far more plastic than masonry. Well-constructed drystone walls, if left alone, will stand for centuries. More often than not, maintenance is required because of poor construction or damage.

I am absolutely in love with how these walls look. I’d love to get the first level of drystone building certification and work on them for pay. But I know myself … I just learned how and am still excited by the experience. I’ll give it some time and see if I’m still so enthusiastic.

If I am, I know a couple of guys in the field I can contact for information. 

The quinquagenarian goes back to school!

Holy cow, shit got real. I feel like a different person. A very busy person, among other things. You may know that I started school two weeks ago. I’m now a student at The Willowbank School of Restoration Arts. At least I think that’s the name, but no one ever uses it. It’s just Willowbank. Technically it’s a private career college, but there’s only one program offered. After three years, I’ll get a diploma in Heritage Conservation.

Basically, I’m starting the process of learning how to repair and conserve heritage structures. At the two week mark, the only hands-on we’ve had is with glass, but coming is an array of hands on learning. I’m particularly looking forward to stone carving and blacksmithing.

Willowbank upper campus. This is where I go to school!

I’m not a rich person so I have to keep my part time job, and with full time classes, it’s a challenge. School is 9:00 am to 4:00 pm and two consecutive days this coming week I’ll also be working from 5:30 pm to 9:30 pm. I can have dinner in the 30 minute span that I can spend at home before I have to leave for work. I’m certain that people have far busier lives, but this is busy for me! The last day off I had with no school and no work was September 4. I don’t see that changing for a while and I have no complaints.

Things were pretty sedate before school but it seems I have less time for everything else now. It just means that I go to bed earlier and feel more tired, more often. But the advantage is that I’m doing something that I really enjoy and it may continue after I graduate. I’m not sure I’ve ever in my life thought, “I’m looking forward to Monday. Why? Because I get to go to school!” With this school, how they teach, and what they teach, I am looking forward to Monday.

This week we’re building a drystone (mortar-free stone) wall!

A classmate in Bright Parlour, a lecture space in the upper campus.

Class sizes are small. My year has six students, myself included, so we’ve already started to form into a cohesive group. And there’s no sign from the other students that they’re somehow better or superior because they’ve been around longer. We’re all just students at various levels of experience. Everyone’s been so terrific, including the instructors. They’re all people in the field who agree to come and teach us for a number of days, either once or a number of times. Some are Willowbank graduates so they know us because they have been us.

With the upper campus being so gorgeous, I park there in the morning, get out of the car and take a moment to myself. I breathe the fresh air, listen to the sounds of the insects and the trees, take in the beauty of the grounds through the thick morning air, and be glad because I have the good fortune to be able to attend such an amazing school.

The Capulet balcony

File: 20150817 – 191835 5D3 4M6C3448.CR2
EXIF: 5D Mk.III, EF 17 – 40mm 1:4L @ 38mm, 1/80, f/8, 400 ISO

Lakeside view

Earlier today I posted a photo on Facebook. I took it with my phone to show I was on the shore of Lake Ontario. Well, you don’t think I would take only a mobile phone photo, do you?! In fact, one of the reasons I went to Niagara-on-the-Lake was to take another photo of the Toronto skyline, across the lake. Voilà:

4M6C3504.CR2: 5D Mk.III, EF 400mm 1:5.6L @ 1/250, f/8, 400 ISO with tripod

4M6C3504.CR2: 5D Mk.III, EF 400mm 1:5.6L @ 1/250, f/8, 400 ISO with tripod

I love the fog. It was also nearing sunset, thus the colour.

Post office

This is one of my favourite buildings in Niagara Falls:

4M6C2259.CR2: 5D Mk.III, EF 24–105mm 1:4L @ 28mm, 1/200, f/8, 100 ISO

4M6C2259.CR2: 5D Mk.III, EF 24 – 105mm 1:4L @ 28mm, 1/200, f/8, 100 ISO

It’s certainly seen better days and I can’t imagine that it’s salvageable. Even if it could be repaired, I can’t imagine anyone is willing to pay for the required work.

Construction of the building began in 1883 and it opened in 1885 to serve as a post office and customs building. Located on the north-east corner of Clifton (now Zimmerman) Avenue and Park Street, it’s ideally located to serve both purposes as it was two blocks from the Canadian end of the Suspension Bridge at the Whirlpool Rapids (in the same location as the current Whirlpool Rapids Bridge), and in the centre of what was the downtown business district at the time. To put this timeframe into perspective, 1885 was also the year the city replaced the oil street lamps with electric lights.

In 1927 a fire in the building led to the customs headquarters moving elsewhere. When the post office moved to its current location on Queen Street in 1931, this building was renovated to again house the customs headquarters. After the customs headquarters moved in 1952, the structure was vacant for a time until the City of Niagara Falls bought it and used it as the city police headquarters until 1978. In that same year, it was added to the Canadian Register of Historic Places. I have no idea what use was then made of the building though I do know it’s been unused for at least two decades.

It’s certainly possible that after being designated as a historic building, it was abandoned, which seems to me a very sad thing.

Information from:

Niagara Falls Canada: A History, William J. Holt, Ed., 1967

The Canadian Register of Historic Places, via Jeff…thanks!

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