May 15, 2010

Where Have All the Craftsmen Gone?

Grant Epstein

DC development blog DCmud interviewed Grant Epstein, who recently withdrew his proposal for 1922 Third Street NW.  Mr. Epstein’s development company focuses primarily on adaptive reuse of historic properties.

One part of the interview caught our eye, as Mr. Epstein confirms what we have long suspected: ornate houses are difficult to build today because it’s harder to find skilled craftsmen to built custom ornaments:

It’s amazing the amount of craftsmanship that went into these houses on [Capitol Hill]. Detail that it’s very hard to replicate today. So the old townhouses, they inspire me. We’ve lost a lot in our new buildings, in the construction of them. It primarily has to do with the number of pieces that go into a house. There aren’t many craftsmen that know how to do the details.


[T]he people don’t exist anymore… the trades don’t exist. For instance, iron staircases. Two or three guys in the area do iron staircases the right way. Two or three guys! Back in the early 1900s there were forty! It’s a big difference. At M Street we found the iron treads from an old turn of the century house and recast the iron posts in order to use the same style that was supposed to be there, but was missing. There were only a couple of guys who knew how to do that.

While walking around LeDroit Park, we frequently notice detailed architectural ornaments that never adorn contemporary buildings.  How many bricklayers today have the experience and skill to lay bricks as was done at the Mary Church Terrell house when it was built?

Mary Church Terrell House

And how many bricklayers have the experience to construct a façade like this one on the McGill carriagehouse at 1922 Third Street?


The owners of this house on Third Street told me how impossible it was to find somebody to replicate these columns:


Rarely will you find anything like the gingerbread on the Anna J. Cooper house:

Gingerbread on the Cooper House

Brackets like these require a good amount of craftsmanship to carve and paint:

Juniper Eaves

Contrast these houses with the vacant apartment house at 1907 Third Street NW:

1907 Third Street NW

Categories: 1922 Third Street, History
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10 Replies

  1. Where can I get the names of the “Two or three guys in the area do iron staircases the right way”?

    Stephanie - May 15, 2010 @ 3:45 pm
  2. From my experience in the construction industry, the world at large has changed it’s priorities. 50 or a 100 years ago there was more of an emphasis on quality. Times have changed. The world of construction today is one that is driven by schedule and cost, both of which run against the grain of craftsmanship. You can get anything you want built, but you are going to have to wait for it and pay for it; something that much of the construction world is unwilling to do.

    This may be related to a cultural shift in which people are less likely to stop and appreciate things like handmade wood work or ornate masonry. The tools and skills still exist, but largely underground because so few developers/builders want to go to the expense of using such materials. Those columns for instance: I am sure that you could get someone to reproduce them, but are you willing to pay for them. My guess is that they’d be $750 – $1000 a piece, but that could vary widely depending on the material. It looks like natural wood, so you’re talking teak or cypress or redwood, all of which are pretty expensive.

    If the owner would like, I can get them contact info for some millworkers who might be able to pull it off.

    dano - May 17, 2010 @ 10:34 am
  3. Our era isn’t special. Builders back then were driven by schedule and cost just as much as we are today. 5% profit is still 5% profit no matter what year it is.

    Economies have changed though. Back then your project costs consisted of two parts: cheap labor and expensive materials. Raw materials were shipped to the job site and, because labor was cheap, you could hire a crew of 40 craftspeople to cut and shape the raw materials into a house. Today, labor has become expensive because of industrialization and increased living standards. Builders still have to make a profit, so if they’re getting squeezed on labor costs they squeeze material costs. They can afford fewer workers and so have less money for material. They end up with cheap pre-assembled parts shipped to the site in a box. Open box, insert component, done.

    On top of the balance between labor and materials, throw in building systems. Back then building systems barely existed; maybe some room stoves, maybe a radiator system to go with your plumbing for a kitchen and one bath, nascent electrical systems. Today HVAC, plumbing and electrical consumes a huge portion of a project budget. That squeezes what you can spend on labor and materials even more.

    crin - May 17, 2010 @ 3:42 pm
  4. I’ve seen at least a half dozen of those twirling columns in good condition at the brass know warehouse on N St (2nd floor).

    Colin - May 18, 2010 @ 9:38 am
  5. Well, overall, it’s a mixed bag. In the Victorian era we had the benefit of Old World craftsmen immigrants. But, by modern standards those old buildings are patently unsafe, structurally-unsound firetraps. Start digging in a basement of a pre-1890 DC rowhouse and you’re likely to find either inadequate footings, or no footings whatsoever. And many of those components we love today were mass-produced, churned out in factories by the millions, and not by craftsmen on the job site. Take a look at catalogs from the Victorian era. Our priorities have changed, in no small part due to the Modernist disdain for ornamentation.

    Paul - May 21, 2010 @ 10:34 am
  6. You’re right about scrollwork and millwork coming from catalogs and factories, but all the other parts (lumber, bricks, slates, windows) came to the site as parts and had to be cut and fitted together. No proprietary tools needed. No warranties (that are voided anyway if you don’t follow the manufacturer’s specifications precisely). No panelized components. The only thing today done like back then is framing: wood, saws, hammer, nails. But even that is starting to be replaced by pre-fab trusses and wall assemblies put together on a factory floor and shipped to site.

    The point of “design” is less and less with builders and architects and more and more with the engineers who design and invent individual patented parts and systems. These parts and systems are then marketed to builders and architects who just assemble them on site.

    You’re not right about being structurally unsound. If they were structurally unsound, they would have fallen down by now. They only fall down when a modern contractor does something stupid like excavate a 10 foot deep hole underneath the whole house without shoring or underpinning (see Morgan Street collapse this month).

    crin - May 22, 2010 @ 4:34 pm
  7. Thanks, crin, for making my point for me. To call older homes structurally unsound is uninformed or naive. A house may well crumble after 100 years, but its much less likely if properly maintained. From what I have seen in DC its more owner negligence and irresponsible renovations that do the damage, not faulty building practices. No, their building codes/standards were not up to our current standards, but they are far from patently unsafe. My family has lived in a farmer’s cottage in northern Michigan for at least a few month a year since before records show. I am the 4th if not 5th generation. Until 10 years ago the only way to heat the place was wood stove or fireplace. The foundation is feildstone and concrete. Its balloon framed. A 100 year old maple tree fell on it 3 years ago and all we had to do was replace a few shingles and some sheathing under the roof and fix up a couple of plaster cracks.

    Second, this has nothing to do with builders, its has everything to do with buyers/owners. Like crin said, we builders will make a small percentage on the job (right now its closer to 2-3%) whether is $10,000 or $10,000,000. The fact is that people are less willing to pay for ornamentation, especially exterior. It has become more expensive as labor prices have risen. As we say at work, we can build anything you want, you just have to be willing to pay for it. The demise of the craftsman has come due to the increasing cost of quality handmade goods and the unwillingness to pay for it. Even in a industry like masonry, which is as labor intensive now as it was 100 years ago, we have seen a decline. Look at the Burberry store at M & Connecticut:
    View Larger Map

    dano - May 24, 2010 @ 5:26 pm
  8. We recently received a historic preservation grant from HPO to renovate the facade of our house and replace some of the historic elements that were removed over the years. It was very hard to find someone who was able to – and willing to – renovate our bay – most companies just wanted to replace it outright. We finally found a company called Harmony Remodeling – they focus on historic renovations. They were VERY GOOD. Professional, with reasonable prices.

    We were also able to find a company to replicate our missing decorative cornice and window/door hoods with a polymer product – copying the structures based on our “sister house” on the the block. (Everything should be going in today – woohoo!).

    As for the iron work, we tried for months to get in touch with one of the three people who are able to replicate the historic iron work. What we ended up doing was finding two risers at Brass Knob Back Door and having a welding company replicate (as closely as possible) the design we wanted – using the antique risers. It looks SO MUCH better than many of the “newer” stoops that we have seen around the neighborhood, but it took a lot of back and forth communicating with the welding company and it still didn’t come out exactly like we had hoped. But it looks much better than what we would have gotten otherwise (diamond plate? UGH!!)

    Maria - June 2, 2010 @ 11:21 am
  9. It’s all a shame too. Craftsmen jobs are local jobs. They’re also green collar jobs (a very de rigueur buzz word right now) when it’s preservation. You would think with 30,000 buildings in DC historic districts, where preservation is required, there would be enough of a market for craftsmen builders/restorers.

    crin - June 4, 2010 @ 7:34 am
  10. I was thinking the other day about how the city could included these high-skilled crafts as part of job training programs. Then the city would have a substantial supply of craftsmen not only to repair historic buildings, but to craft new ones, too.

    Eric Fidler - June 4, 2010 @ 9:33 am

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