By Ulrika G. Gerth
---- — BOSTON — Two local craftsmen are spending the fall with history at their fingertips.
To carpenter Graham Lawson of Byfield and preservation carpenter David Mason of Newburyport, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Hand-picked to lead the restoration of one of Boston’s most iconic buildings, the Old South Meeting House, they revel in the meticulous work that currently keeps them at a stomach-churning distance from the ground.
“You just have to focus on what you’re doing and ignore where you are,” Lawson said of climbing 180 feet of stairs to the staging area around the steeple.
Lawson was approached by Cornerstone Construction, a Reading-based contractor in charge of the $800,000 project to restore the famed structure’s steeple, windows and exterior woodwork.
He, in turn, reached out to Mason, who has applied his expertise in preservation to a number of high-profile jobs in Newburyport, Marblehead and beyond. Mason has also been part of two projects at the meeting house in the past.
But they both said this is a job like no other.
The historic landmark in the Downtown Crossing neighborhood, where the colonists gathered in 1773 to launch the Boston Tea Party, was in dire need of a facelift before winter, said Emily Curran, the executive director of the Old South Meeting House, a private nonprofit museum. Considered a high-priority asset, the project is financed by the National Park Service.
“Preserving this building is just critical,” Curran said. “They’ve done a fantastic job.”
When Lawson and Mason began four weeks ago, they faced an enormous task. Close to 50 windows, most 7 to 8 feet tall, needed sash repairs. Nearly all of the 96 balusters demanded attention. Four urn finials, one on each corner of the balcony, had to be taken down in nine pieces to be restored and reassembled. And one of the eight 16-foot columns that stretch from the floor of the balcony to the roof required replacement.
They also have to wash off the filth, which covers everything, without staining the bricks below. A crew of eight Cornerstone employees work at their supervision.
“We looked at each other the other day and said, ‘How can we think this is fun?,’ but it is,” Lawson said. “It’s so much fun, to put something together that’s such a big part of history.”
Said Mason, “It’s an honor to be given this opportunity, to be down there and do things right.
“You’ve to have a certain patience in this field,” Mason added. “You know you’re not just tearing out old material and putting it in a landfill somewhere, but making sure it’s around for another 100 years.”
The local team carries on a legacy that began in the 1870s when the Old South Meeting House became the first building in the country to be spared from the wrecking ball because of its historic significance. Built as a Puritan meetinghouse in 1729, it had been slated for demolition until a group of determined residents rallied support and funds for its preservation. The museum, which opened in 1877, remains open throughout the project despite mesh and scaffolding.
“There are always people staring at us,” Lawson said, chuckling. “I’m constantly waving at kids on field trips.”
Lawson started DGL Carpentry in 2003, after more than a decade as the lead carpenter at a Georgetown residential and commercial remodeling company. He has over the years been involved in several high-end residential renovations in Newburyport, Amesbury and Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, N.H.
Mason honed his craft as an apprentice of David Webb, another preservation carpenter in Newbury. Some of Mason’s more notable local projects include the replacement of windows at the Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport and the restoration of two brick Georgian homes on Federal Street.
“But this is my first time being on my own, having a full crew, and being responsible for doing the work I’ve been doing for the past 10 to 12 years,” Mason said.
The restoration is scheduled for completion in about six weeks. They started at the top of the steeple to reach five windows in the metal roof and have since gradually worked their way down.
“At the end of the job, we’ll work on the ground,” Lawson said. “That will be a wonderful thing.”