By the time the renovation is done, every brick that shows on the exterior will be touched by human hands at least three times.
For 30 years I have lived in the shadow of the Sears Crosstown building four blocks west of my street in Midtown. I drove past it on my way to work, and when flying into Memphis I could use it as a landmark to find my house. Lately I have been walking around it a couple times a week to watch the transformation to Crosstown Concourse.
It is a remarkable thing. The biggest ongoing building restoration in the United States comes down to a lot of men on swinging scaffolding working painstakingly on one small section of wall at a time. The giant crane that lifts materials to the top of the building can reach over 200 feet. The tool that masonry superintendent Jerry Fiske carries looks like you could use it to divide a ham sandwich or change a bicycle tire.
It’s called a slicker, or sometimes a pointer or striker. Whatever you call it, the bent piece of steel roughly eight inches long is the tool of choice for replacing the mortar inch by inch that holds the millions of bricks in the massive building together.
Quality bricks can last a millennium, but mortar not so long. Water causes cracks and discoloration. Sears Crosstown was built in seven stages starting in 1927. The walls of the oldest sections are made of five interlocking rows of bricks, called wythes. And by the time the renovation is done, every brick that shows on the exterior will be touched by human hands at least three times after the mortar has been cut out, repointed, and the bricks gently washed.
Man on brick, one at a time, a different kind of grit and grind.
“Tuck pointing can destroy a building if not done right,” says Fiske, 71, who has been wielding a slicker, chipping hammer, grinder, and the masonry pan called a hawk since he was 13 years old. “This building is in darn good shape for not having any maintenance done for 40 years.”
Historic preservationists reviewed six shades of mortar, which can vary in color depending on the mix of lime and water. Too much water and the building will look “like a zebra,” says Fiske. He is so into this job that he can’t sleep some nights for thinking about it.
“It’s rare to get someone who cares so much,” says Mike Kennedy, owner of Structural Waterproofing and Restoration and the recipient of Fiske’s nocturnal phone calls. “This is his baby.”
Crosstown Concourse is a testament to the skill of people like Fiske and Kennedy and the vision of the developers, bankers, and architects who made it happen. No thanks to Sears, whose name has properly been removed from this project.
Years ago some advertising genius, a la Don Draper in Mad Men , came up with the slogan “the softer side of Sears.” An actress talked about the girly things Mom could shop for while Dad was buying power tools and appliances. The seamier side of Sears was their portfolio of abandoned property such as Crosstown that contributed nothing to the neighborhood or tax base. Adding insult to injury, a hostile investor showed that Sears stock was worth a billion or so more than anyone knew, although none of that money found its way to fixing blight or broken windows in Midtown.
Renaming and repurposing are not the same as revival. That will only come when Crosstown Concourse opens in 2017 and is occupied with renters, businesses, students, and medical services and functioning as the urban village its backers hope it will become.
To set the record straight, “the naysayers” did not say it couldn’t be done. The question was whether it should be done. You can do a lot of things for $200 million. It will take more than clean bricks and cool interiors to make it a success. Between Crosstown Concourse and Methodist Hospital on Union Avenue are several blocks of blight, condemned houses, and abandoned property, including the Midtown expressway ramp aborted in the Seventies. Life in the urban village will not be Harbor Town or suburbia, by a long shot. But a Midtown landmark already looks a lot better, and optimism is in the air.