Hillsdale County is full of nineteenth and twentieth century buildings, and John McCormick is the stone mason capable of restoring these buildings to their original grandeur.
“I like bringing old buildings back to life the way they should be,” McCormick said. “Even more so than building something new, I like to see old buildings reborn.”
McCormick has been a mason for more than 20 years. He began his journey in masonry when he saw an ad in the Detroit Free Press for apprentices at Bricklayers’ and Allied Craftworkers’ Local 1. For 12 weeks, McCormick learned production brick and blocklaying, which serve as the basis for masonry jobs. He then worked for union contractors for the next years and a half before achieving the financial means to work for himself.
Prior to starting his own business, McCormick Masonry, McCormick spent two years reading books to ensure he knew everything he could about the craft.
McCormick’s first job within Hillsdale included completing major restoration work on the 1853 Will Carleton Poorhouse. He explained that his work on the Poorhouse was non-destructive, meaning that instead of taking stones out, he repaired them.
Most of his work on the Poorhouse focused on repairing the sandstone “cornerstone quoins,” which line the corners of the building.
“I repaired the cornerstones with a French mortar mix called Lithomex,” McCormick said.
For most projects, McCormick said he has to replace the mortar between the joints connecting the stones. Most of the mortar mixes used on older buildings are too hard for the joints, according to McCormick.
“If too hard of a mix is used, water can’t evaporate from the joints, so it goes through brick faces and spawls them,” he said. “Water has to evaporate through the mortar joints, which need to breathe.”
McCormick said he makes his own mortar for projects by mixing cement-based mortars with Type S Mason Lime. Adding the lime, McCormick said, makes the mortar soft enough to fill the joints between old brick or stone.
Hillsdale County Historical Society’s JoAnne Miller said that she was very impressed by McCormick’s work on the Poorhouse.
“John was a careful worker who was familiar with the way to restore the cobblestone structure so that it was true to the original,” Miller wrote in an email.
McCormick said he likes repairing things that are going to last. He added that most of his projects involve cleaning up mistakes from previous repair efforts.
“There’s lots of sloppiness, and I like to clean those up,” McCormick said. “I’m very meticulous in going about and repairing them.”
McCormick has passed on some of his skills to the next generation by helping his nephew Paul Bilicki build a career in masonry. Bilicki began his journey in masonry observing McCormick, and now works as a foreman in the facade restoration department for RAM Construction services out of Detroit.
“I observed John doing masonry work, and I found it interesting because it was building with an artistic aspect,” Bilicki said.
When Bilicki started off as an apprentice, he came to Hillsdale to help McCormick with a few projects, one of which included brick replacement work in the basement of the Keefer Hotel. Now at RAM, Bilicki said he works on a variety of projects that range in scope and size. Some projects may take three days, while others may require years of work.
“A lot of the things we do at RAM are not one person gigs,” Bilicki said. “I have a lot of respect for John because of how much he can do on his own.”
Bilicki said McCormick would be able to do more projects if he had a big crew to work with, but he added the quality of work would not be as good if McCormick involved more people.
After working for several years as a mason, Bilicki echoed McCormick and said the best part of masonry is restoring something to its original beauty.
“There’s just such a satisfaction of bringing something back to life,” Bilicki said. “It’s just like nursing a wounded bird.”