passing thru

Chad Alexander Smith | August 18, 2016


Rendering of new front facade above

In First Grade I won an art competition. The prize was six art classes taught out of a building on the square in Lawrenceville. I ended up taking classes for years out of various buildings. My teacher would have us set up our easel and paint out of the storefront windows like some sort of retail display.

Driving to class, my mother would tell stories of how she went to the movies, to the dentist and to the doctor on the Lawrenceville square. My father talked about how he would like to restore one of the old buildings or the courthouse (which was painted white at the time).

Two years ago I was driving on the square and saw that the Growler had recently moved out of what was Mr. Wilson’s old store, another place my mother talked about buying her school supplies. I took a chance and called the family which had owned the building back to the 1930’s. The building was in terrible shape needing a new roof, termites had badly damaged much of the floor and the brick walls were literally returning to dust. But, the building was of the same age as Fleet Feet and my hope was that the roof framing was similar.

We closed on the building, applied for a demolition permit and began peeling back the layers. Two ceilings were removed to reveal the old pine structure we had expected. When we turned over the painted ceiling boards, you could see the circular saw marks from where the boards were milled, an unbelievable find. The ceiling structure and boards had developed a beautiful deep bronze patina. There was a mill locally in Lawrenceville at the time and more than likely these boards came from that mill.  We saved the boards and made two doors. Currently we are making shelving and cabinets.

Jim D’Angelo, Bill Baughman and Mary Long all helped research the history of the building. The brick walls actually dated back to before 1914 to when the space was an alley. Evidence of the alley can still be seen today on the lower brick walls. The soft brick eroded from where the rain splashed from the dirt up onto the brick (our plan is to preserve this). The bricks were made locally, most likely in molds of 8 to 12. The recipe was what was available: sand, lime and water. It is debatable as to if they were fired or left to air dry, but the bricks are considerably softer than bricks made today. We will be restoring the brick walls in the same manner they were originally constructed with mortar made of sand, lime and water with some clay uncovered when we dig footings to help match the old mortar. The mortar today is closer to the color of the brick due to the brick leaching into the mortar and discoloring it.

The sagging ceiling will be supported from below with new columns and beams.  One of the surprises when removing the ceiling from the rear portion of the building (which was an addition sometime in the 1950’s) is that the ceiling boards were actually floor boards. We believe we have enough of the floor boards to replace the areas damaged with termites and preserve the old pine floor.

The roof currently leaks. We discovered there are actually four roofs which has caused the wood ceiling joists to sag due to the added weight. Thru a laborious process, each roof will need to be removed back to the original pine boards.

Turning to the front façade, windows can be seen from the inside that were covered over sometime in the 1950’s or 1960’s. We would like to remove the metal siding and canopy and expose these windows and the brick wall behind them and hopefully uncover some interesting brick detailing. We have an old photo that shows some shadows on the brick facade that may indicate detailing.The parapet on top of this wall is damaged. This was a concern because we do not have any of the original brick. And then it came to us, the front façade was not original, because the brick was clearly fired. Upon looking at the rear wall, the addition to the building and the front façade were built at the same time. This gave us the idea to remove the rear wall to salvage the brick and aide in preserving the front. And that is where the idea came from: let’s return the building to an alley.

If we removed the entire back wall and replaced it with a glass wall system, we could open the inside to the outside thru a Charleston style secret garden. A water feature, a planted wall, and landscaping could create a serene getaway that could also work to enhance the existing surroundings of the exterior of the building. Who knows, maybe we could plant some tomatoes and sell to Local Republic.

We then asked the question: what makes the square great? Besides the old buildings and the history, what draws people to the square?  What do we like about the square? The answer: we like being on the roof of McCray’s. There is something special about watching the bustling activity below. Which made us think, what if we could work on the roof of our building?

The concept of an open veranda was born. Similar in size to McCray’s, the proposed exterior roof space could offer a place to take a laptop to enjoy working on a Fall day, hold a meeting with a new client or just take a break and enjoy lunch. The veranda could have casual dining and lounge seating with a pergola-style canopy for shade, screen walls for visual privacy, and planters with greenery to soften the space. In addition, the same structure that provides needed support for the sagging roof below, could pass up to form an upper room, divided by glass walls to provide space for conferencing and private work areas.