Peter McCarthy Electric Co., Inc. - Specializing in Older Buildings in Chicago
Adventures in Old House Wiring....

Woodlawn Elegance

Old wiring ChicagoOld wiring ChicagoOld wiring ChicagoOld wiring ChicagoOld wiring ChicagoOld wiring ChicagoOld wiring ChicagoThere are a lot of things I love about my job. Those of you who follow this blog regularly know I love buildings, architecture, and Chicago history. One of the things I don't talk about that much is how much I love people. I feel very fortunate that I'm in a field where I can not only improve people's lives, but also I have an entree to meet new people, my neighbors and friends, that I would never have if I were not in business for myself. I count that as a blessing.

Last week I was fortunate enough to work for a new customer from Angie's List. What a treat! This beautiful 2-flat in Woodlawn has been in her family since her grandfather built it in the 1920s. WOW!  I love the simple yet solid elegance of the Chicago Brick 2-flat. And the 1920s! I can just picture it, when Woodlawn was booming, the Roaring 20s were in full bloom, women were wearing flapper hats with cigarette holders a foot long, and guys were saying things like "23-Skidoo" and "that hat's just the bees knees!" As corny as it sounds, the actual physical continuity and connection from that generation to this that I feel when I'm in one of these old buildings is one of the main things I love about this job. It is a privilege and an honor to be able to pay some small part in honoring my customer's heritage with my contribution to make the building better, and be sure its in tip top shape for a new generation. It makes me feel good.

The front stairs outside had no light to help people see as they walk up,or help find their keys in the darkness. She bought a beautiful, Prairie-inspired exterior fixture that matches the style and vintage of the building perfectly.

We were able to install it on the front face by drilling through the brick and setting a recessed box inside the brick wall. The often-used technique of mounting the flat pancake box right on the wall surface was not appropriate here, because it would have forced the fixture to sit off the wall about 1/2" It would have worked, but it just would not have looked right. I explained to my client that this front face brick is very hard (much harder than the common brick used for the sides, back and maybe the second and third courses behind the front face. Note the bricks on the side wall of the building next door. That is common brick.)  It can also be very brittle, and since the round box were were going to recess in the wall takes up almost as much space as the rectangular base of the fixture, I was very concerned that if the brick cracked beyond the edge of the circle we were drilling and then chopping out to create a recess, it might crack wide and the crack would not be hidden by the base of the fixture. I explained that we could do our best, but there was some chance that might occur. I explained how the crack could be patched with mortar colored to match, and it would not "jump out at you" when you looked at it. But a close examination would show it. After some deep consideration, she said "go for it." 

So we did. I took the extra insurance of going straight to Lowe's on 83rd St. and picking up 3 brand new hammer drill bits, so our cuts would be as sharp as possible. Once again, my foreman Matt did an excellent job of drilling out a beautiful round circle large enough to accommodate the pancake box but not so large as to extend beyond the surface that would be concealed later by the fixture base. That entailed painstakingly drilling out about 50 1/4" holes in a circular shape to create the basic outline, and then carefully chopping the brick within the outline out by hand with a chisel. This kind of work is time-consuming and requires not only some good muscle to swing the hammer, but a very highly tuned-in sensibility to careful monitor every blow and every hole. He did a great job! On the inside, there was an existing fixture on the wall that we were able to use as our take-off point. To minimize damage and plaster repair, we ran surface-mounted wiremold raceway from the existing fixture across the walls and ceiling to the point where we passed through the wall to feed the exterior light. Matt again showed his skill and sensibility by suggesting that he bend the wiremold at 90 degrees to transition from wall to ceiling. This was elegant design and execution. I had visualized it as requiring us to cut notches in the upper molding to accommodate tight 90-degree fittings that would sit flat on the wall. His design was much better. Credit where credit is due. Thanks Matt!

And thank you, Alicia! It was a pleasure to meet you and an honor to work on your gorgeous building!
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