Kevin Ammons: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast, the show that brings you the people and projects that are bringing innovation to preservation. I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Park Services National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. Today we join Jason Church as he speaks with Dominic DeRubis, historic preservation mason at HPTC. In this podcast they talk about Dom’s career with the National Park Service and how he originally joined up with Williamsport Preservation Training Center.
Jason Church: Dom, you are well known as a red mason and instructor. When and how did you get into this?
Dom DeRubis: My dad was very big on education because he only had one year in Italy. So he wanted us all in the family to go to college and he was a coal miner it was very hard to go and have finances. My brother went, he became a superintendent of a school district; my sister went, she’s a head nurse. I come along, I like to work with my hands.
My uncle comes over from Italy with a stone trade. My dad said to me, “If you’re not going to college,” I was sixteen years old, “Go up there and see your uncle, he’s going to teach you a trade that you’ll have for the rest of your life.” Since I liked working with my hands, I’ll do it at sixteen.
So, my uncle basically started me out as a mortar mixer, had my hand, and as I advanced, then they put the trowel in my hand. I spent five years, not three, five years as an apprentice because that’s how they did it in Italy. It was only a three-year program, but I had to take it five, that’s fine.
I went through the ranks. I worked my way up to his foreman and then basically he retires his business and he said, “You can take over the business.” I tried it. Things were bad at that time—these were the seventies, eighties. So, I’m teaching, in the meantime I took a night teaching job at the Votech teaching adults.
Well, I had a Park Service individual taking my adult class, and he said basically… From the Park, he said, “We’re looking for a mason.” And I’m looking for work at that time, it’s in the spring of the year and I said, “Boy, that’s good, I can do your work.” And he said, “Well you have to apply.”
Well, masons don’t apply. They just go and say “Are you hiring?” or “I’m a contractor.” I said, “Yeah, I’ll do your work, that’s fine.” And he said “No, no Dom, you’re going to have to apply.” I said, “I never applied for anything in my life, but I’ll fill out that application.” Very basic, I filled it out. And he says, “The cert is closing tomorrow, you have to hand carry this to our office at the Allegheny Portage National Historic Site.” I said, “I’ll do that; I want to do your work.”
So, in the meantime, it was WPTC from Williamsport in Maryland, they want to hire me. I said, “I’m willing to do your work.” But I’m thinking this is just a temporary hire, I just want to do the work. I’m now gathering up a whole lot of contracting work, too. And I took the interview with them and they said, “Well”—this was probably in April—and he says, “We’re not hiring until July.” And I said, “Hey, listen buddy, I can’t wait until July. I have to have enough work in the summer to get me through the hard winter.” I said, “I have to take all the work I can, can you give me anything at all?” He said, “No, I can’t.” And I was going out the door and he basically said, “Keep this date open” July 27th or something. And I said, boy, that’s a pretty strong indication he’s going to give me the job, but I… still, me and my partner, we’re working.
So he called, and he called my ex-wife and he said, “Do you think your husband would like to have that job?” And she said, “I’ll ask him, he’s really busy.” And she said, “He called, and they want to hire you.” And I said, “I think I’m going to take a shot at it. Maybe there’s some future in this Park Service work for me.” So I went to Johnstown. We worked there and I did the stone work.
What happened was WPTC had a building in Richmond, Virginia and it was a butter brick job. Butter brick went out in the 1800s. Mr. Hicks, who was the superintendent at that time, he came up to see me and he says, “Dom, I know you’re a good mason.” He says, “Can you do butter brick?” I says, “Yeah I can do them.” He says, “Who taught you?” I said, “My uncle. He come over from Italy and we put an addition on a courthouse, it’s butter brick and we had to match it. And he taught me.” He said, “I need you in Richmond.”
Now, I’m a local boy that doesn’t like to drive in a small town. I said, “I’m not going to Richmond.” I said, “No, you hired me for Johnstown. This is where I want to work and when I’m done here, lay me off. I have a business going on the side, now, with my partner.”
He comes back up and he says, “Listen.” I said, “You can’t make me go to Virginia. I was hired as local help. I know you can’t make me do this. I can quit and go, my business needs it.” “I just want to talk to you.” And he says, “I can’t find anybody in the United States or any contractor that can do butter brick. And you’re the only I guy I know, can you help me out?” I’m pretty easy going and I says, “I only have one old clunker truck and I have a family car.” He said, “We’re going to give you a vehicle to use and I’m going to pay you overtime to drive from your house to Maryland.” And he said, “I’ll give you all the overtime you want.” He basically said to me, “We need you to do this brick front.” I looked at it and I said, “Yeah, I’ll do that in about two weeks.” And I got it done, a couple of arches and the brick front and they liked it, the butter brick and I said, “That’s fine, now I’m done with this traveling stuff.” I said, “I don’t want to travel but I’ll finish your job in Johnstown.”
So he comes back up, and now in the meantime, I’m teaching at the Votech at night. I took and got certified to teach in the daytime and they’re going to move me up as a full-time instructor at the Votech. And I have the job nailed down.
Mr. Hicks comes to see me and he says, “I need you to do another butter brick job in Richmond around a two story building.” Now I’m going to Votech now. I said, “We’re done here, lay me off, I’m going to Votech.” He said, “We’ll talk about it.” I said okay. He said, “Listen, I’m closing it and putting in heat in December. You’ll be nice and warm. Where are you going to work in December, nowhere.” I said, “I understand that.” He said, “Can you just come down and do the two-story building?” He said, “I’ll provide you with a driver.” I said, “Wow, that’s pretty awesome.” I said, “Yeah, I need the money before Christmas” and he said, “All the overtime you want.”
So, I did the two-story building. It’s Christmas party and Mr. Askins, who started HPTC or WPTC, he came to talk to me and he said, “This organization really needs a mason. We’re really hurting for a really good mason,” and he said, “You fit the category very well. Would you work here?” And I said, “I don’t think so. I don’t like to travel, I don’t even like to drive and you’re a hundred miles away from me.” Basically, they pull me in the room and they said, “It’s winter time, you’re not working out there. I know you’re off. You’re not working. We’ll provide you with work and we have a driver and a car for you through the winter.”
I go through the winter. They’re getting more work for me and I’m saying, “Lay me off because I’m going to Votech in the Fall.” Mr. Hicks said, “Let me talk to you.” He said, “Bring their package down, what they’re paying you and your benefits. How much do I have to beat it to get you to work for us?” I said, “It’s going to take quite a bit because I’m going to be leaving home and traveling.” Now I said, “If you can beat the package by ten thousand dollars a year,” I said, “I’m willing to talk to you about it.” So he said, “Okay, I think I can do that, because I don’t have masons.”
He talked to whoever he had to talk to in DC, and he came to me on a Monday morning and he said, “Fill out the application,” and I did. And he said, “You’re the best qualified, you’re going to get the job.” He said, “Actually, I’m going to give you fifteen thousand dollars more.” This is in ’89, you’re talking about a good raise. He said, “I’m going to give you a work leader and I’m going to step you out which takes ten years to step out in the Park Service. I’m stepping you up right to step 5 to get you the money you want.” So, I said, “I’ve got to go home and talk to Votech, my wife, kids, see what we come up with.”
Now, I was certified to teach but I didn’t have all my credits. I had sixty credits that they gave me for my knowledge of masonry. But I had to go back to college and I had to take General Ed, Psychology, Math. I’m not a student type person, I’m a hands-on person. And I talked to my wife and I said, “Maybe you could help me through college and I’ll take the job with Votech.” She said, “No, you have to do this on your own.” I said, “Well, I’m not going to school. I never liked school, I’m a hands-on person. I’m going to go down there and do hands-on work that I know how to do. I know I can instruct, but I don’t know about this college.” I said, “I’ll go down and talk to the superintendent, Mr. Hicks.” I said, “I’m going to take the job,” and he said, “That’s good.” Then I said to him, “Remember one thing, I worked for my uncle for twenty-eight years, I never quit. You provide me with work, I’m going to be here every day before anybody will be here, and I will never take sick time off.” He said, “Wow, that’s quite the dedication.” I said, “I’m very dedicated and I like my work.” And I said, “I’ll prove it to you.”
He gave me the first job and he said, “You have three weeks to lay these bricks at Thomas Stone in Maryland, 500 hundred bricks.” I was laying 800 in a day and he gave me three weeks. I went down there and I did it the first day. I went back and he said, “How’s it doing down there,” and I said, “I’m helping the carpenters. I did that in one day.” He said, “You couldn’t have.” I said, “Well you didn’t even have a lot of work there.” He said, “You got it all done in one day,” he said, “I’ll kiss your feet if you did that.” And I said, “Don’t say that, because it is done.”
He said, “You know that was kind of new work, we’re going to get into historic preservation, where it’s a lot slower.” I said, “I do preservation work. I restored churches, steeples, tore them down piece by piece, put them back together.” And he said, “And you’re a teacher?” I said, “Yes.” And he said, “We’re a training organization, can you teach masonry?” I said, “Absolutely, I can,” and that’s how my whole career started. I fell in love with historic preservation.
I retired and gave a whole year of sick time back to the government. And I still come back at seventy-seven and that’s my whole career.
Jason Church: What’s your favorite project you ever worked on?
Dom DeRubis: Wow, I worked at so many… My favorite project? There was one at Friendship Hill that was very, very challenging. Friendship Hill was the Albert Gallitin House, he was the second Secretary of the Treasury and it was around Pittsburgh overlooking the Monongahela River. And they had a gazebo, it was oval shaped. From one end to the other, it must have been sixty feet. And they had coal mined under it, and it was falling into the river. They wanted it moved. They wanted it the exact same height, facing the river exactly and they wanted it thirty feet back into the yard. Now you’re talking about a gazebo and it’s oval and I said basically to one of the architects, “Who is going to lay this out for me?” They said, “You’re going to lay it out.” I said, “I don’t know, you’re talking about moving every stone and making it the exact same height and it’s an oval.” I said, “This involves pouring a footing, a stem wall and then stonework and having it exactly the same, exactly square with the other gazebo.”
How am I going to get an oval moved? So I started thinking, I can’t tear that down yet. I’m going to use lines and I’m going to put batting boards the whole way around. I said, to move any building, you have to start with a square. I can’t bend lines in an oval. I have to put the oval in a square. So I took and I put my lines and I shot the height for my batter boards all the way around and I put nails in for height. Now I have the height over there, now I have to run lines from each end and through the middle to get it square, now I have it basically in the area. And I thought, that’s good, I know I’m going to have it square and the height. So I said I can start dismantling, but I want to get every stone exactly right, every stone, even the small ones. How do you do that? I said, I know how to do it now. We’re going to reverse lay the whole thing. And I told the guys, “When you pick up that stone, don’t turn it walking over to me and I reverse build this on plywood in the yard. And we moved it. I was off a half inch, in that whole move in the inside paver, one half inch.
I think that was maybe my favorite, maybe my hardest project with the Park Service. I liked the challenge.
Kevin Ammons: Thank you for listening to today’s show. If you would like more information, check out our podcast show notes at www.ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time, goodbye everybody.