That’s a project we’re working on in Newark – the Ballantine House – where we are assisting Building Conservation Associates with repairs to the facade and front portico. If it doesn’t look quite like a construction project…there’s a story there. (All photos taken by Tim Michiels on site.)
If you look at the schedule of any large building construction project for almost all of the nineteenth century, the works seems slower than it should. Large buildings often took three, four, five years to complete. The reason was simple: everything relied on masonry and the work stopped or slowed to a crawl during the winter. In New York, the period where you could be reasonably assured of weather warm enough so that the mortar wouldn’t freeze at night ran from early April to late October, or about seven months. In warm years you’d get eight months, in cold ones six, but it’s important to remember the risk that masons were taking if they tried to start too early in the spring or push too far into the fall. Weather forecasting was quite primitive, so there was no reliable way of knowing if a front was going to pass through and damage new brickwork to an extent that it would have to be demolished and rebuilt. (This issue, by the way, is a nice example of how technology completely unrelated to construction – weather forecasting – affects construction.) Small projects didn’t have their construction schedules stretched in this way, but they had their schedules moved to start in the spring so they could finish before winter.
The advent of skeleton framing changed the logic of construction scheduling. Steel erection could take place at any temperature, and concrete slabs could be much more easily warmed from below than walls could be from the side, using the high-tech method of lighting fires in “salamanders,” i.e., buckets full of coal. So the structure could be built though the winter and the masonry walls would follow later. Some thought about schedule was still needed, but the days of long winter lay-offs had ended.
A masonry contractor in 1880 could have built an enclosure similar to the one you see above using wood plank, but it would have been much more involved and, in relative terms, much more expensive than the fabric tent over steel scaffolding frames you see here. Heating it would have been more expensive than the modern equivalent as well. I can’t say for certain how much more difficult and how much more expensive, but the fact that building such enclosures didn’t become popular suggests the answer is “enough.”
In any case, here’s a view of the same facade before the enclosure was put in place: