The Keepers of Brick and Mortar

U.Va.’s historic masons keep the Academical Village structurally sound and traditionally beautiful

Words by Dan Goff. Photos by Margaret Wadsworth. Graphics by Alyce Yang.

Anyone who’s walked on the Lawn in recent months has probably noticed that several of the columns bordering the grassy expanse appear incomplete. Some of them are wrapped in sheets of plastic, while others look heavily eroded — their interior bricks exposed, unevenly sanded as though they’ve been subjected to severe weather. To the untrained eye, they might seem midway through a state of crumbling decay. The reality, though, is just the opposite. Just ask Daisy DeJesus Maine, one of the University’s historic masons — the unsung heroes who keep the most iconic buildings of Grounds pristine and in keeping with centuries-old tradition.

“There’s just so much more to it,” she said. This was in reference to historic masonry as opposed to the new construction that dominates Grounds, but it could just as easily be applied to the columns and other structures in the Academical Village being restored to more traditional forms — there’s much more than meets the eye. The columns might look like they’re being broken down, but only because they’ll eventually be built back up in a more accurate and lasting way.

In Maine’s eyes, the key to the work she and the other historic masons do is something called lime mortar. It’s a building material Jefferson used when first constructing the Academical Village and Monticello, but it has since fallen out of fashion. 

“Right now, everybody wants their mortar to be pretty much like concrete,” Maine said. This was the mentality popular among the masons working on the Academical Village buildings for much of the twentieth century, she explained. The result was that modern construction techniques were applied to historic structures — a dangerous mix that may initially look pretty, but ultimately spells doom for the buildings in question.

The most important way to guarantee these buildings’ longevity, Maine said, is to ensure that they can breathe. Modern mortars don’t allow for that. “And most people say that’s what they want,” Maine said. “They don’t want moisture moving in and out through the walls.” But the movement — or breathing — she explained, is natural and necessary for the bricks. Modern mortar traps the moisture within the bricks, which causes brick spalling, or deterioration.

Lime mortar, conversely, is vapor permeable. “It allows moisture to pass through it,” Maine said, citing this as a necessity for the long life of a brick. Much of the work she and the other historic masons do, then, first involves undoing. They must chip away at the harmful, stifling concrete applied by masons a few decades earlier and reapply the gentler lime mortar used in Jefferson’s time.

Maine is aware that her work as a historic mason is highly specialized — a niche within a niche. In the middle of her paean to lime mortar, she stopped to acknowledge that she was speaking of things that “most people will never know.” In fact, outside of the University’s historic masons, it’s doubtful who could even list the benefits of lime mortar. The tools and tricks of historic masonry are all held by the members of Maine’s team — and a tiny team, at that.

“There’s just six of us,” Maine said. “Seven, including a supervisor.”

In order to understand how Maine became part of such a small, highly specialized workforce, it’s necessary to go back — all the way to seventh grade, when she and her class took a field trip to Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center. At the time, Maine was more interested in auto repair than construction. “I didn’t know I wanted to be a mason,” she said. “I didn’t know what masonry was.”

Even after she learned the definition of masonry during the field trip, Maine remained wary of the field because of whom it seemed to attract. “I didn’t want to do it because all the kids that went to look at the masonry class were people I knew would not like me,” she said.

As a woman of Native American, Puerto Rican and Mexican heritage, Maine felt less than welcome. “You just knew there was going to be some kind of confrontation going on.”

But the masonry teacher at CATEC convinced her there was a place for her in the profession, claiming that one of his best students at the time was female. He also suggested that women were better suited to masonry in general, praising a greater attention to detail. “All the guys were sitting there as he was saying that she’s gonna be a better mason than you ever will be … I was like, ‘I like you! Okay, maybe I will take this class.’”

And she did, but not for several more years. Maine started taking classes at CATEC in tenth grade and remained enrolled for the next three years. Next, she went through the University’s Facilities Management Apprenticeship, a competitive, four-year program which, aside from masonry, also offers training in technical fields like plumbing and carpentry.

After graduating from this program, Maine became a new construction mason at the University, but the historic crew’s work held a unique allure for her. “It always seemed like they had a pretty cool job — definitely more specialized,” she said. She wanted to be able to work on the Academical Village’s buildings, but these assignments were limited to the elite group of six. So Maine did the next best thing and got acquainted with the historic masons. Then, when one retired, she sought to become his replacement — and soon enough, she was a member of the team.

Today, Maine has been with the historic masons for about five years. Although she made the process sound simple enough, she stressed that it requires a particular sort of worker to do what she does. “You have to love paying attention to tedious things,” she said. “You could find any mason on a construction job right now — like, new construction — and if you tried to get them to do what we do, they do not have the patience.”

The typical historic mason also tends to look a particular way, at least at the University. All of Maine’s coworkers are men, all “older white guys.” Maine, just shy of 30, is an outlier across several demographics. “Everybody looks at me funny when I first walk onto a job,” she said, but she doesn’t let it get to her — and the quality of her work speaks for itself. “They get over it once they see me laying.”

Maine emphasized that she had never felt out of place among the University’s close-knit community of historic masons, that none of them had ever made her feel ostracized for her differences. “We’re such good friends and we work so well together that it doesn’t even come up in conversation,” she said. “I’m one of the guys, for sure.

The University’s team of historic masons are responsible for the maintenance and restoration of the Academical VIllage, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Regardless of how fair or representative one considers the University’s treatment of its history, the visual repercussions are impossible to ignore. Thanks to the existence of employees on Grounds like the historic masons, the Academical Village still remarkably resembles Jefferson’s initial vision. The efforts of the historical masons have been validated, and maybe even enforced, by the University’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an honor bestowed back in 1987.

Despite this prestigious UNESCO label, the work of a historic mason — though always vital in the eyes of the masons themselves — is not always glamorous. Sometimes, it’s even thankless. Mark McGhee, Mason Plasterer Senior Supervisor — not the supervisor Maine mentioned, but rather her “boss’s boss” — acknowledged both of these aspects of the job. 

It was a Friday morning, and McGhee, Maine and the other historic masons were spreading sand over one of the brick walkways leading to the Rotunda — not a task indicative of a historic mason’s typical work, Maine said, but a good example of one of their more mundane duties. The day was achingly windy, but in their matching Facilities Management sweatshirts and muscling sand into the cracks of the sidewalk — a necessary step of long-term preservation, Maine explained — the masons seemed impervious to the chill.

As his colleagues pushed sand, McGhee recounted a much more exciting day of work. Back in 2015, the masons had been prepping the Rotunda for renovations when they discovered a hollow wall. They knocked a hole into it and Maine herself climbed in, finding what was later identified as Jefferson’s chemical hearth, possibly one of the first educational chemistry labs in the country. The hearth is now on display in the Rotunda. “We didn’t get the credit, though,” McGhee said.

Jefferson’s chemical hearth was unearthed by the University’s team of historic masons, but they weren’t credited with the discovery. // Courtesy University of Virginia

The vivid mental images McGhee created made the job of historic mason sound like a historically significant scavenger hunt in which the participants don’t know what they’re trying to find. He went through a list of other artifacts he and his coworkers have found in his eight years of working at the University — including a wishing well, a cistern with names carved into its blocks and an extensive network of tunnels branching through the ground under the Academical Village. 

McGhee pointed to the dirt under a tree to the right of the Chapel. “We found a big one under there.”

Before his time at the University, McGhee was in the private sector, working in construction in Orange County. When asked about his reasons for working in historic masonry, he cited similar reasons as Maine. “I want people 200 years from now to see what we do today,” he said, gesturing at the buildings and brick walls surrounding him and the masons.

Immersing himself in the historic side of the University has given McGhee a long-term view of life, and he used the span of two centuries to describe much of what he and the masons do. He described the deconstructing and reconstructing aspect of the job as fixing “what it took 200 years to mess up.”

He’s also become an expert in the minutiae of the job. He spoke of lime mortar with the same reverence as did Maine, and provided even more unusual details about their construction materials. Goat hair, he said, was used in their plaster mixture as a binding agent instead of horse hair — “it clumps less,” he explained, speaking as casually as though he were comparing two types of house paint rather than describing a building technique forgotten by most masons for centuries.

Although their main goal is, of course, preservation, in some cases that means extensive reconstruction or recreation to return a building to its original, Jeffersonian state. McGhee mentioned his first visit to the University, back in the 1970s, soon before a two-year renovation of the Rotunda. The iconic building as he described was vastly different from what students and faculty know today. For one, it had two floors instead of three. The ceiling, he added, was painted to mimic a night sky.

The renovation McGhee referred to was a significant period in the modern history of the Rotunda, as evidenced by The Cavalier Daily’s coverage of it at the time. When the building reopened in 1976, just in time for the nation’s bicentennial, the University’s student newspaper released a special edition themed around the Rotunda. 

The issue, published April 13, 1976, is largely dedicated to the Rotunda’s storied history — its initial use as a space for classes, the infamous “Great Fire” of 1895 — but at its center is an opinion piece of sorts, collectively penned by the editors of The Cavalier Daily. “Restoration At What Cost?” its title suggestively asks, and goes on to assert that this “cost” outweighs the benefits.

“While we are pleased that the plywood barricades have finally met their demise after two and a half years of isolating the center of Mr. Jefferson’s academical village,” writes the collective voice of the paper, “we wonder if some new forms of less obvious, but equally formidable defenses have been erected in their place.” This voice warns that the building’s present state “prevents many of the past activities that served to mark the Rotunda as the center of the University.” The voice laments that its “resemblance to a museum has increased” and worries that “beauty has triumphed over functionality.”

When considering that this article was written more than a decade before the University even received its World Heritage Site status, it’s interesting to question whether the “functionality” of the space has since increased or decreased. Even as preservation becomes more and more of a focus, modern concessions are made as well. An article on the next page of the same issue, far less ominous in tone, contradicts the preceding piece by arguing that “the Rotunda is indeed the compromise between old and new” and cites such amenities as water fountains and exit signs to prove its point.

The University’s historic masons have restored many of the columns and walkways of the Academical VIllage.

In the successive decades, several contemporary additions have been made to the Academical Village — perhaps most notably the accessibility ramps installed in 2018 and opened last year. The team of historic masons constructed the ramps themselves, even using the “same hand-striking techniques” as they would on the buildings in the Village, Maine said. 

While McGhee and Maine both agreed that the addition to the Lawn was much-needed, they added that making such an addition was a minefield of satisfying all parties involved — both those who needed safe access to the Lawn and those who wanted any new construction on the Lawn to be visually identical to the surrounding buildings. Just matching the bricks, McGhee said, was a painstaking process that took nearly seven years.

Both Maine and McGhee praised the construction of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, another significant construction near the Academical Village. They agreed that the University should acknowledge all parts of its history, whether praiseworthy or abhorrent. This perspective is likely strengthened by the intimate work done by the historic masons, and the complete, honest portrait of the University it grants them — included on his list of historical finds in the Academical Village, McGhee mentioned that they had come across slave quarters in Pavilion buildings on more than one occasion.

McGhee and Maine also suggested that the work of the historic masons is largely misunderstood or underappreciated by the majority of students and faculty. The location of their work at a university, unusual for a World Heritage Site, means that it can only be done at certain times of the day or the year. Noise complaints from Lawn Room residents, which McGhee said are common, must be honored — but they can totally stall a day’s progress.

“The majority of our work can only be done once students leave,” Maine said. “Summertime comes, and we’re doing 10-hour days, six days a week.” Never mind that, often, the work they do is to benefit the students themselves. Last summer, she said, they restored functionality to all Lawn Room chimneys. “We were on the roofs the whole time.”

Even though it may seem to students like the University takes an unusual interest in preservation, the historic masons themselves identify the major trend as new construction. “The University just stays building things,” Maine said. “You get used to it.”

And although Maine worries that historic masonry is “definitely a dying art,” she knows she and her fellow masons will at least stick around another five years — because that’s how far out the team is booked. “There are quite a few buildings that are in poor shape,” she said, laughing. Again, the University’s unique situation as simultaneously a World Heritage Site and a functioning university throws a wrench into the work Maine does. Not only do she and the other masons have to wait for classes to let out to truly get to work, the daily wear and tear suffered by the buildings and walkways of the Academical Village make the job of a historic mason an endless one.

Endless, difficult, tedious, maybe even overlooked — but Maine wouldn’t trade the work she does for anything. For her, it’s all in the details. With restoration, she said, “every step counts … Did you soak [the bricks] in water? Did you brush them off? Did you take the time to chisel off that little bit of extra mortar?”

She’s glad she wasn’t scared off from masonry on that first day at CATEC, but some part of her knew she was destined for this work — in fact, her interest predated the field trip. A couple months prior, Maine, waiting for her mother to finish shopping, went outside and found herself studying the store’s brick exterior. “I thought, ‘How does this even happen?’ Like, it blew my mind. How does it look so nice? How does it look so clean? I don’t even understand how this happens.”

Today, Maine’s understanding of “how this happens” extends much farther than the average mason. Not only does she comprehend how buildings are made today, she also knows how they were made centuries ago — and thankfully for the Academical Village, she’s not about to forget.

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