June 13, 2013

Moisture likely loosened bricks on Portland building

City officials say the building at Congress and High streets is structurally sound.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – Two masons who have done restoration work on buildings similar to 142 High St., where bricks fell off the facade Sunday, said the problem likely stemmed from moisture buildup that caused the bricks to separate from the concrete wall.

click image to enlarge

Bricks fall from the facade of 142 High St., the Congress Building, on Sunday, as workers inside the building try to shore up the structure.

David Svenson photo

Leroy White, who owns Sea Wall Masonry of Westbrook, said that building, like many buildings downtown, has an exterior made of veneered brick, in which the bricks are laid in the same direction and connected with mortar.

The brick facade is attached, at intervals, with metal ties to the concrete blocks or steel beams that make up the building's skeleton.

When moisture builds up between the veneered brick facade and the concrete wall, the mortar and the metal ties can decay over time. The moisture also creates pressure that makes the brick bow outward, which is likely what happened Sunday, White said.

Frank DiDonato of F. DiDonato & Sons Masonry contractors in Portland agreed with White's assessment.

"If bricks are not waterproofed regularly, and a lot of them are not, moisture seeps in through the mortar," he said. "They should really be waterproofed every few years."

Asked whether vibrations from the restoration of the former Eastland Park Hotel, across High Street, could have contributed to the problem, DiDonato said that was possible. The landmark hotel has been gutted on the inside and is being rebuilt under new ownership.

"If the mortar had already weakened, (vibrations) might help it along," he said.

Bruce Wennerstrom, the hotel's manager, said any demolition on the site was completed several months ago.

"We're hanging wallpaper and painting now," he said. "That's not very disruptive."

No one was injured by the falling brick and debris, but city officials closed High Street on Sunday and Monday as a precaution. One lane opened to traffic late Monday and both lanes were opened by noon Tuesday.

The sidewalk in front of the building is expected to be closed for some time, said city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.

City officials have determined that the 85-year-old building, made of concrete and supported by steel beams, is structurally sound.

Kerryann McQuade, rental manager for the building's owner, Stonecoast Properties LLC, said the brick facade is aesthetic and not essential to the structural integrity.

"The building is like a fortress," she said.

It could be several days before engineers find out what caused the facade of the building to bow out and rain brick and debris onto the sidewalk, McQuade said.

The building's owner has hired a Portland engineer to inspect the damage and oversee the repair work, to be done by P&G Masonry of Old Orchard Beach.

Work was delayed Tuesday because of the rainy weather.

McQuade said she won't know how much work will have to be done or how much the repairs will cost until the engineer and masons get a closer look.

Tammy Munson, who directs the city's inspections division, said Monday that she has asked the owner to inspect the entire facade.

The 100,000-square-foot building, which is home to more than 200 commercial tenants and anchored by the State Theatre, was last inspected by the city in 2012, after a new fire alarm system was installed.

Some of its bricks were restored – re-pointed – about five years ago, McQuade said, but she could not immediately say who did the work.

Brick re-pointing doesn't require a city permit, Clegg said, so there is no public record of who did the work.

White, the mason in Westbrook, said moisture buildup between veneered brick and concrete is relatively common, and masons can usually address it before problems arise.

"If you see mortar joints deteriorating, the bricks should be ground and re-pointed," he said. "If there are visible holes or cavities where the mortar is just gone, you might need to do more than just re-point."

White said it's easy for a mason to see whether there is moisture damage, but the work can be expensive so some building owners may not have it done right away.

DiDonato said building owners might forgo waterproofing their brick facades for the same reason.

 

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: erussell@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

 

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