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The Truth about Bricks and Mortar

wastrom2 openEditor's Note: This is the second of a two-part interview with masonry consultant John Wastrom.

"There are not many of us," John Wastrom sighs.  "We're rarer than hen's teeth. And when we're gone, there aren't any more of us coming." 

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Wastrom is talking about masons. Not the fraternal charitable organization of freemasons with their ritualistic ceremonies. Wastrom is referring to the disappearance of skilled men, for they are almost always men, who work with stone and brick.

It's ironic, he notes, that in Portsmouth, a city obsessed with brick buildings, that so few people understand how bricks and mortar work together. Even many conservators and preservationists are unaware that modern methods are killing old buildings.

Apprenticed as a mason's laborer and educated as an archaeologist, John Wastrom returned to school two decades later for a master's degree in Preservation Studies from Boston University. At 62, with over 40 years restoring walls, chimneys, tombs, and foundations, Wastrom is increasingly called upon as a consultant in an ancient and endangered trade.

New Hampshire's local brickyards are all closed. Traditional mortars made of limestone have given way to sturdier, less porous "Portland cement." And despite Portsmouth's obsession with red brick, modern buildings are now made of steel and wood. The ubiquitous brick "look" is little more than a decorative skin. 

Young John Wastrom 1980s

Old school apprenticeship

"It's a matter of learning your materials," Wastrom says. "I spent my career researching this stuff, breaking down the components and learning how to match mortars."

"I was lucky," he explains. "When I was younger, there were still Old World masons left. I was trained by Sicilians. They were either kissing and hugging you, or kicking and yelling at you. They'd bully you all day, but that's how you learned."

In medieval times, masons were considered the elite of all artisans. They built the great cathedrals of Europe and were in constant demand by kings. That sense of entitlement continued well into the 20th century.

"If you dropped your trowel or hammer, "Wastrom recalls from his early days, "you didn't pick it up. You waited for an assistant to do that."

But the age of skyscrapers changed everything. So did the widespread use of "Portland cement" in America. Developed in the last half of the 19th century in Britain, it sets quickly, bonds solidly, and can be used underwater for bridges. Used in concrete, mortars, and plasters, Portland cement is cheap and widely used in modern construction. But it is also caustic and subject to a variety of safety and environmental concerns.

And if you are restoring anything built from brick in America before the early 20th century, John Wastrom warns, Portland cement is likely the wrong material to use. In the long run, a cheaper quicker repair will shorten the life of the structure it is intended to save.   

CONTINUE Bricks & Mortar article 

Breaking it down

The golden rule when conserving masonry, Wastrom explains, is to use the same kind of bricks and exactly the same kind of mortar as originally used in the structure you are restoring. Mortar is designed to serve the brick. It allows the building to breathe, to be porous and flexible, to expand and contract in weather. Mortar, therefore, crumbles and fades, and must be replaced. That is the natural order of things.

The restoration mason is a type of chemist. His job is to deduce the component elements that were originally used to join the bricks. Then he uses that formula to recreate a mortar for the restoration. So if the builders of Portsmouth's 1715 Warner House, one of New England's oldest urban brick buildings, mixed their mortar from burned and powdered oyster shells, then the modern conservator must do the same or match the process.  

Over the decades Wastrom has worked on almost every historic house museum in the region. He worked with Chinese  masons on the Yin Yu Tang House, a late-18th century Chinese home reconstructed at the Peabody Essex  Museum (PEM) in Salem. He has worked on stone and brick projects across New England and beyond. So when John Wastrom begins talking about mixing mortar, stand back or settle in.

His masonry scholarship extends to the ancient Romans and other early cultures. He recounts tales of mortars made often with limestone. He recounts stories of mortars mixed with sand, with ash, with clay, with salt, with white rice, and with blood. He describes Shaker whitewash blended with sugar and milk. Thinned limestone putty, when mixed with hair, makes plaster. And the more he talks about the process, the more passionate he becomes.

"Lime mortar was meant to be sacrificial," he says. "It doesn't last forever, and our forbears intended it to be that way."

Mixing mortar


Mixing it up

It was the variety of components that made these early mortars work. Our ancestors experimented, made mistakes, and created nearly weatherproof brick buildings that could breathe with the seasons.

It is Wastrom's job to break down the components of each historic mortar, then to mix up a fresh chemically identical batch for each restoration project. Clients sometimes balk at the cost of "doing it right," he says. City projects often opt to hire the lowest bidder who may, instead, "re-point" old bricks with an off-the-shelf modern mortar. This may destroy the old mortar bed behind it, Wastrom says, preventing water vapor from getting out. That water then freezes and thaws with the seasons, breaking down the structure. The mortar designed to protect the brick, essentially becomes an invasive enemy.

Wastrom begins to describe his well-honed process. You don't want to let mortar sit around too long, he says, because it will go stale in the bag. He starts to offer more expert tips, then suddenly breaks off.

"I'm not going to give away all my secrets," he says.   


History as perception

The conversation evolves naturally from masonry to history. Wastrom is not shy about expressing his views. He rails against the Colonial Revival movement, begun during the nation's centennial in 1876, that idealized the past, but got most of the facts wrong.

"Nostalgia is such a trap," Wastrom says. "History changes all the time. History is only what two people agree on. Mostly people don't want to hear the facts about the past. History is messy and complex, but people want things neat and simple."

For example, Wastrom says, Portsmouth's downtown brick buildings used to be decorated in a variety of colorful paints. Early masons thought red brick looked cheap, so they sealed it under attractive and different colors. Why don't we keep up that tradition, he asks?

Then in the 20th century, in the name of progress, we sandblasted the exterior of brick buildings to make them look smooth and homogenous. We created a monotonous and historically inaccurate look. The sandblasting not only gave us a monotone city, but actually harmed the brick buildings, turning the them into sponges. Now every brick building in town "leaks like a sieve," Wastrom says.

"People's idea of historic preservation varies all over the place," he concludes. "Our job is to preserve these historic buildings, but now we have fake brick buildings and fake chimneys, all in the name of preservation. What's the point of that? And I'd like to see some nice modern buildings downtown, just to break things up a little."


Copyright © 2015 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the print version of the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday. He is the author of 12 books. His latest, Mystery on the Isles of Shoals, closes the controversial Smuttynose ax murder case of 1873. (See It is available in local stores and in narrated form by

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