Sunday, March 20, 2011

Commercial Work

One of the first projects my 18-year-old son worked on with me was a conference table, for a commercial real estate sales office in downtown Portland. This was done when cutting and finishing was done with handheld skill saws and grinders. Shaping and detailing an unforgiving and reluctant stone like granite was a real challenge back then. It was a slow and difficult process to turn two raw slabs of granite into a matched three-dimensional stone table.

We were both quite proud of our hard work when we delivered it to the tenth floor of the commercial real state office and installed it on a custom wooden base ready for us. It all came together very well we thought.

Before we left the office, three architects walked in, one stating, “What a handsome piece of stone,” congratulating the other on his stone selection.

Then a group of young commercial salesmen came in, not noticing us, “HOW MANY APES DID IT TAKE TO CARRY THAT UP HERE?” and laughed.

This was my son's introduction to commercial stone fabrication. It's no wonder we all prefer to work for private home owners who respect and appreciate good craftsmanship.

The Inspection

Traveling by jet plane to southeastAlaska,a ferry to the island,crossing it in a international travelall, to Craig, a fishing village.
Finally, sea bag down on a 38 foot trawler,shown to me by the Harbor Master Jim's boat, our home and transportation to the back country.

Jim at six feet six inches, a Portuguese-Norwegian recluse, was educated as a biologist, but had a different dream, headed out at top speed , six knots.
Jim lived on cigarettes, instant office, and Polish sausages, slightly heated, and slept, due to his long frame, in front of the oil stove kept on low temperature 24 hours a day, close to his maps, electronic gear, and books, for guidance.

Provisions including drinking water for cooking and coffee were kept in plastic jugs. Toilet facilities were dispensed with in order to provide extra space for maritime gear.
Jim navigated the waters as only a local fisherman can, understanding the tides, reading the shoreline, the weather, and the surface tension of the water, beyond my imagination, for the last 25 years.
There was no bay, shelter, or passage that he was not familiar with, nor tide or current that he did not work with. He must, for when the tide can run at 8 knots in narrow channels and you can only move at 6 knots, the Marble below can be a serious problem.

Me a stranger to these waters, but with 30 years in the marble business, along to advise him about his dream, marble quarries in southeast Alaska's great limestone deposits.

Me, a small town town boy, raised on the edge of the Prairie in Stearns County, Minnesota, could only observe the rain forest and vast waterways around me.

Three days out, anchored in a cove 20 feet from from a solid white marble island ,its edges shaped by ocean water but its interior rainforest covered with 4 inches of moss under the canopy. The horizon,totally flat, perfectly level, all vegetation in every direction trimmed to perfection by the tide.

Salt water, dead flat, as can only happen in the inland passage, at dawn, I climbed on deck of the old wooden fishing boat with my instant coffee.

The silence
The stillness
The solitude
At Dawn
Was deafening

I sensed the slow upwelling of water steering to my left not violently, just an oval upwelling in the dead calm water.
I can feel it yet, with a deep powerful “sh sh”, no spout, only air movement, a dark form emerged, looked at me, a small town boy, raised on the edge of the Prairie.
Passed inspection, I believe, by nature's most beautiful animal, on the edge of the rainforest, in WHALE COVE, Alaska, that summer morning.

The State of The Arts

He was a beautiful man
Hungarian cab driver in Vienna,
locally referred to as Wien.

Throwing his great 60 year old arms up
declared in a rich baritone voice

Wien, a city filled with art,
over two hundred museums,

Franz Joseph the Hapsburgs were collectors.

Western, Eastern, Asian, African, Persian, Polonaise, Egyptian, Turkish, Greek, Roman,
Ancient, Renaissance, Baroque, Modern
all the masters kept
here in Wien

A city of musical genius
Haydn, Brahms, Mozart, Schumann, Strauss
all kept
here in Wien.

Sculpture along the Danube
and at every turn, beauty,
here in Wren

Architecture, and Gardens equal to any in the world kept,
here in Wien.


someday I hope to go to your country
to see your great art,
home of


Custom Fabrication

After being turned down by two neighborhood machine shops, I searched the large S.E. District for a metal fab shop.

I found two of the three steel fabrication shops recently closed their business. The third was a large building with four lumbering overhead bridge cranes. There is a sadness about such a cavernous tomb, that must have housed an industrial powerhouse in a different world. I counted six bodies in this dimly lit non-heated block-long building .

The girls at the office welcomed me with smiles and interest as I described my need for four U-shaped metal forms, three inches long, made from ¼ stock.

After much excitement and duplication of words they summoned the plant manager, whom I assumed was the owner, who as he walked in smiled at me, looked at my drawing, and said:

“Yes, we can do this for you. It should cost 40 dollars, however, by the time we process the order, track its process in the shop, receive and answer your phone calls discussing its progress, and schedule you for pick up, it will cost me 240 dollars. Incidentally we can make 20 of these for the same price.”

“Pay 240 dollars now, and we will call you when they are ready,” all virtually said in a minute or less, and he walked back into the shop.

I said thank you and pulled out my Visa card and the girls started to process the order.

I now have 16 extra pieces of metal taking up room in my shop which I have no use for.

My Friend Pete


My mentor was Italian whom I worked for when I was a college student. His name was Pete Rigutto, we call his nephew “Repete”.
Pete is long gone now.

Although Pete probably never went beyond high school, I believe he was the most intelligent man I have ever been around, in so many ways.

Pete began his training as a marble mason early, walking over the Dolomites to central Europe with his dad, slacking their own lime to use for mortar after World War One.

During the Depression, living with his mother he raised pheasants, trapped salmon, and grew vegetables around their Portland home. He told me they would catch pheasants in a net trap they set up, I don’t know exactly how this worked. Salmon were plentiful in those days in S. E. creeks, later going to the Oregon coast salmon was abundant, as was deer meat, although many flat tires had to be repaired on every trip. He told me a little bar by my present home was the first stop on the way to the coast, it being a long way out of town, it now part of Portland city limits. The Tillicum.

Later as a young man, he made ends meet by having three jobs at once. Professional wrestler, cello player, and marble mason for his dad. When he asked his dad why he always had to do bathroom work on commercial jobs, his father told him that’s where people sit and have time to look closely at the work, and it has to be good.

As a college student working for Pete I asked him why he always knew more about the subject matter than me, he told me it was due to the fact that Italian was is first language, which gave him insight into technical terms and “I never got along with my wife so I spent a lot of time reading at my beach shack by myself.''

Italian marble masons in those days didn’t bother much with what we call customer relations, so although he was a gentleman, he always put on a gruff face, to keep homeowners away and not peer over our shoulders as we did their marble work. A policy not practiced in todays' world, but still perfectly logical to me. Pete would tell you when he was finished with the job and didn’t invite silly questions by the customer. He was old school.

Pete had many expressions that solved most problems, if the customer questioned his work. His favorite being, “Can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. As a helper who mixed the cement I hated to hear ''Never got enough until you got too much.''

But Pete was at his best ad libbing uncomfortable situations. Once after working several weeks on a complex slate floor in a bank remodel all the ladies seemed to enjoy talking to Pete even though they seemed to get under his skin as they walked in and out every day. The bank president thought Pete layed the door entry at too steep an angle to the sidewalk, actully I did too but one never second guessed Pete. While we were redoing this entry ramp the women giggled and said you just got through doing that, Pete snarled back, “Women aren't the only ones who can change their mind.”

However I will never forget Pete's retort to a woman in Eastern Oregon who walked over the floor we worked on the previous day with a broom handle tapping the floor thinking she was checking for a good job. “WE JUST LAY THEM, MA'AM, WE DONT TUNE THEM.”

When Pete's younger brother Fred and I get together – Fred no slouch himself – we never talk about Pete, its just to hard for both of us.  

My Dad The Stonecutter

Today, few people know what a stonecutter is, even though until recently it was a common trade that was often a preparation to architectural training. Stone was, and in some ways still is, the fundamental building material for construction.

My dad the stonecutter practices trade between 1920 and 1970 an era when architects were still allowed to put art into architecture.

My dad practiced his trade in a large steal and glass building along with 50 or so others in a building we called the stone sheds in St Earns County, Minnesota, where the glaciers did all the heavy work eleven thousand years earlier.

The stonecutters and carvers and many related trades walked to work from their homes in khakis or blue denim often with aprons on, lunch buckets in hand, not unlike there predecessors 500 years before them in constructing cathedrals of Europe.

In his lifetime the stonecutter moved from job site to quarry site, primarily due to improvements in transportation and sawing technology, and for the most part disappeared from public view.

They were unassuming men whose children probably never knew what their fathers did in the stone sheds.

They including my father and his three brothers, Ted, Richard, and Larry. All were stonecutters and carvers, a dicey trade at best in those times of pneumatic tools. Some lived, some died.

But they were all wonderful artists and craftsmen who left their footprint on every city in America.

When my father the stonecutter learned I was following him in the trade, he gave me some practical advice that would serve many of us well: