Many masons are content laying bricks for a union paycheck. It’s a job that requires stamina and meticulousness. But mason Marty Nally of Manchester wasn’t content with middle-of-the-line brick laying, standing side-by-side other workers while laying down a wall. He did it when he was first starting out, but now his business card reads: “Historic restoration specialist, marine and seawall specialist, and masonry wall investigations.” The card features a picture of a splendid Back Bay mansion that Nally helped renovate.
But he is most proud of his masonry work on 26 lighthouses over nearly two decades, helping to restore them under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. Crumbling and abandoned lighthouses were repaired to be sold to nonprofits or private companies and individuals, and Nally says “they needed a masonry company that was experienced in historic buildings, like those I was doing in Boston.”
The lighthouses – often called America’s castles – were assigned to the lowest bidders for repair work, but the cute-rate companies failed miserably, and the law was changed to instead give the jobs to the most experienced mason, not the cheapest. In the case of Bakers Island Light Station in Salem, that happened to be Nally, who, unlike the other bidders on the project, proposed that supplies be brought in by helicopter, instead of using a raft to get them to the island. That turned out to be a smart proposition – one contractor brought material in by boat, unloaded at low tide, and when the tide came up, half of his provisions were underwater. This was a mistake that Nally, a strategist, would never have made. “I had a good run at lighthouses and made decent money, despite challenging logistics; half of lighthouses are on often remote islands and just feeding a crew can be an undertaking,” says Nally, who is 62 years old. Unlike the stereotype of the simple-minded laborer, Nally says, “You have to use your brain. If you don’t, you’re going to get in trouble.”
He learned the trade from his father, who came from Ireland. He guided his son through the learning process — from mixing mortar and moving bricks to when Nally was about 17 and his dad said, “OK, it’s time to start laying bricks.”
For Nally, who now has his own company, Martin J. Nally & Co., the work is still the brutal heavy gig it was when he started long ago. “Technology has changed almost every other trade, but in masonry, probably the biggest innovation was the diamond cutting blade,” he says, “and that was almost a century ago. We still do things the same way we did two thousand years ago.”
The Globe spoke with Nally about being a mason in the 21st century.
“Just take a look around Boston – masons built just about every building here. Brick and block was the material for about 200 years. Masonry was a great trade in the old days, but there’s been a change in attitude and the pride in craftsmanship is gone. Masonry is very expensive. Steel and glass are more efficient and economical. Unions are getting softer and it’s changing – a lot of new immigrants are getting into the industry again. Back in the day, masonswere Irish and Italian only, otherwise you wouldn’t hire them.
“My father was a masonry foreman for a large construction company; he worked on large multi-story buildings. I’d give the masons brick and block, whatever they needed to build, and wore a hard hat to hide how old I was.
“It’s absolutely physical work. When you’re young, you don’t know and don’t care, but when I turned 58, my doctor said, ‘Marty, have you ever calculated how many tons you’ve lifted since you were 14?’ I need new shoulders and knees, and have arthritic thumbs, but nevertheless, I’m still at it. It’s demanding every day. Initially, I didn’t like that, but now I realize it’s probably the best part of the whole thing. Right now I’m building a fireplace in Rockport. So much goes into it. If you get a hundred bricklayers, 95 of them will not be able to build a fireplace – or one that actually works. It’s very technical, the firebox, throat, air chamber – you have to build everything out of just clay bricks. I’ve done 200 of them in my life, and it’s second nature for me.
“Lighthouses are a different beast. My favorite lighthouse was also the most difficult, Petit Manan Lighthouse in Maine. It was seven miles in and out by boat every day. The first crew quit in the first two weeks. We ran out of three things every day: diesel fuel to run generators, beer, and cigarettes – all the things you need to keep the job running smoothly. The most interesting part of a lighthouse for me is the granite, brownstone, or limestone that they’re made of. All lighthouses are conical down to the base and up to three-feet thick.
“Reworking the products from that era is interesting. My family would often come to the lighthouses with me, and I ended up writing a book for my son, ‘My Dad Fixed the Lighthouse.’ We made nine thousand copies initially and sold every one of them. My son has a business job now, but he still knows how to do masonry. It’s dying trade but it was good to me. I’m a very lucky soul. And when I go out on a job, I always bring a trowel. As my old buddy used to say, ‘Have trowel, will travel.’”