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Given that every material fails eventually from exposure to the elements, one way or another, the big question is “how difficult is it to repair?” followed in second place by “how difficult is it to maintain?” To put it another way, if you spend enough time with old buildings, pictures of pristine new buildings are always mildly amusing. It’s great that they look like that, but how are they going to look in a few years? Sometimes eventually comes soon than we expect.

The picture above was taken from a rooftop on East 95th Street and shows a mansion, a few rowhouses, some prewar apartment houses, and some small apartment houses that were technically built as Old Law tenements but were always nicer than what that implies. We’ve also got Central Park and the west side in the distance. We’re looking at a lot of brick.

In short, almost every place there’s an abrupt change in color, there’s been work performed. The type varies. The green ovals shows where the brick has been replaced at window heads, probably because steel-angle lintels rusted and jacked the brick. The pink ovals show wholesale rebuilding of parapets. The light blue ovals are repointing of large areas. (The yellow oval is either repointing or rebuilding – it’s hard to tell from the photo and I wasn’t really paying attention when I was there.) The blue ovals are corner reconstruction of the brick, which is usually related to rusting of the columns behind the brick.

All this work wasn’t necessarily easy. It required scaffold (either swing stages or pipe), it required a lot of examination by architects or engineers, it required steel repair off the scaffold. It required masonry work off the scaffold, which meant a lot of moving heavy materials in small amounts. The point is not that all this repair and maintenance was effort free, but rather that it was doable. A brick wall can be maintained by little more than pointing for hundreds of years. If the steel had been properly waterproofed – the steel frame buildings here are from the 1910s and 20s, and the steel was waterproofed with nothing more than red-lead paint and mortar – it would have lasted much longer without rust, and thus reduced the amount of brick damage to be repaired. Given proper maintenance of this kind, these buildings will last indefinitely.

The repairs and maintenance are clearly visible. So what?