Wrecking Party

We must destroy the old in order to build anew.  This has become the expressive phrase of modernity, a phrase that is at once brave and troublesome.  Within months of each other, our town where our summer dacha is located has lost its 100 year old brick and mortar school to the wrecking ball, a public policy choice, while the one-room schoolhouse on the outskirts of town, privately owned, is getting a new lease on life.  The private choice on the schoolhouse being the source of a happy story, let’s stay with it.

The observation that leads this story also applies to the schoolhouse, but not in the usual way.  Nothing will replace the old footprint.   A bad foundation and cellar were all the reasons needed to clear out.  The decision to save the building, a difficult one in itself as nothing is free, comes with the requirement that certain things come apart first.  Above ground level nothing has to be packed away.  Great-grandpa’s portrait of his dog hanging on the bedroom wall along with Aunt Tilly’s tea service on the sideboard, just to mention two items, can stay right where they are.

Me:  You’re kidding.

Chief Engineer:  Nope.  Leave them right where they are.  Pack them if you like if it makes you feel better.

Me:  You’re what I call a confidence man.

Chief Engineer:  Careful planning, pal.  Put a martini on the table and if it spills I won’t charge you a dime for the move.

Me:   This sounds like a bet.  And if I lose?

Chief Engineer:  The martini is mine.

Below ground level things are different.  With the details of the foundation construction at the new site squared away, the cellar has to be cleared of all items before the rigger’s work begins.  This is where my own physical work starts in earnest, though briefly.  Up and out through the dreaded bulkhead with lumber, car parts, electrical stuff, lawn furniture, the works.  Things are assorted by destination.  What can stand the summer elements go to the hedgerow.  What can’t goes into the rented shipping container.  Then three things happen simultaneously.  First, the heating and plumbing specialist cut all plumbing and heating connections below the rafters in the cellar.  Anything left suspended below this level would be caught up or crushed by the soon-to-arrive steel I-beams used to support the house.   Out with the furnace and hot water heater.  Nothing must be left in the way.

Everything out of the way.  Furnace and water heater  get a lift. Copyright James V. Michalec 2015

Everything out of the way. Furnace and water heater get bounced.
Copyright James V. Michalec 2015

Second, NYSEG has been notified of the house move and arrives to both disconnect gas and electric lines as well as mark the underground gas line path with spray paint on the ground.  Finally, with the space cleared and light switches and wires removed in the cellar (usually coiled up into  he joists), riggers move in to begin  digging under the house where there is no cellar to create an area to start building the first cribbing as a base to support steel I-beams.  In more recent updates to the house – the wings – cinder block cellar walls are punched through with a sledge hammer.  Through these openings the riggers will slide the I-beams.

Pounding a wall.  Hand work is the only way to do it. Copyright James V. Michalec 2015

Pounding a wall. Hand work is the only way to do it.
Copyright James V. Michalec 2015

The riggers work with a certain pacing, a pacing that is measured and careful.  This is a dangerous business.  Not only is the work done under a building, but the building foundation is slowly being eaten away as foundation walls weaken from holes and digging.  The tools required are heavy and require a respect of their own.  Stand clear.   Voices often call out in the semi-dark below.  “Okay over there?”  “I need a beater.”  A beater is a sledge hammer.  “Ricky, go over and give Steve some help with those timbers.”  The chief engineer’s job is a critical one.  He is responsible for safeguarding the house and, most importantly, his own crew.  The calculations he makes must not be about right, they must be absolutely right.

Setting the first jack under the schoolroom. Copyright James V. Michalec 2015

Setting the first jack under the schoolroom.
Copyright James V. Michalec 2015

The hammers pound, the skid steer digs, and three separate set works for lifting the house begin to form under the house.  Ultimately it will roll on three sets of wheels, much like a tricycle.  Getting those wheels under the house is the name of the game.  Right now it seems a long way off and I can only vaguely envision what it might look like.  Stand back and snap pictures.  This is the first time there is serious work going on at the old schoolhouse – and I’m not at the centre of it.

On weakened knees.  Holes punched, ready for steel I-beams. Copyright James V. Michalec 2015

On weakened knees. Holes punched, ready for steel I-beams.
Copyright James V. Michalec 2015