Cambridge history revealed in chimney renovations

Two chimneys, built in the 1920s for the Phillips Packing Co., in Cambridge, are being restored as part of a $22 million project to save the iconic smokestacks and an adjoining 60,000 warehouse. Supervisor and bricklayer, Robert Larcoque, pictured, came out of retirement to handle the rebuilding of the chimneys.

It looks like a giant hawk’s nest, made with pieces of netting, boards, railings, buckets, rope and cable. 

Situated atop a growing tower of brick, now 75 feet high, a crew works to restore an iconic Cambridge landmark, the twin chimneys of the once famous Phillips Packing House. The chimneys, and an attached 60,000-square-foot warehouse, are all that’s left of a production complex that was begun in the 1920s that eventually covered acres of Cambridge property.

This is no routine task, said Robert Larocque, with the Connecticut Division of Structural Preservation Systems, the company restoring  the two smokestacks.

He describes himself as superintendent and a brick layer, and acknowledges the work he does is unique and a trade that’s fading away.

“I came out of retirement to do this job. Was retired for almost a year,” he said.

“I’m one of the very few people in the nation who do this kind of work that has the abilities to build one of these types of chimneys from the ground up. It’s a dying trade.”

Before work began on June 23, each chimney was 91 feet tall. Vultures and other birds that were calling the place home left soon after work on the project started.

“On the south chimney, we demolished the top 30 feet and are rebuilding it back to 30 feet. On the north chimney we took down 17-and-a-half feet and are going back with the same amount,” Larocque said.

While there are a number of industrial chimneys of this kind remaining in the nation, according to Larocque, but few are in operation.

“Developers are buying old factories and turning them into museums to save the legacy of the buildings. As I understand it the city was built around this plant.”

“We have already put in six pallets of material on ‘tuck pointing’. We cut out 100 percent of all of the joints and repoint new mortar in every joint — tuck pointing.

“The north chimney was in such poor condition,” he said, “that it was almost condemned. It had two massive cracks almost 80 feet long. We removed all the cracks, all the way through, and relaid bricks back in. We had to rebuild about two thirds of the base support, the plinth. 

Robert Larcoque, supervisor and bricklayer on the rebuilding of the two 91-foot chimneys of the former Phillips Packing Co. in Cambridge, holds one of the thousands of specialty bricks used in the restoration.

“We did it in 3-foot increments, take out a three-foot section, replace it, and the next day do the same, all the way around. It was a seven-day work process, but it was rebuilt.”

Rebuilt, too, are the two iron entry door openings that allowed workers of the past to enter the chimneys for cleaning and inspection.

“The fire was in the boilers, it was the flue gases that exited through these chimneys. They probably ran about 150 degrees at the bases and 80 degrees coming out the tops,” he said. 

While the bricks are radial bricks to create the circle circumference, Larocque said it’s the “setting the taper” of the chimney that’s the main challenge, continuing the correct taper so that when the top is reached, everything fits together. The base circumference is 29.5 feet and 18.2 feet at the top.

The bricks removed from the chimney can not be reused. “These bricks are like glass, as you removed them they shatter. The ones we took off have been here for 80 years, you can’t use them again. They are brittle because they are so old.”

Problem is, there is a very limited number of replacements brings available to the industry. Restorationists are working with stock produced years ago.

As for those distinctive tan-colored bricks that are used to create initials in each chimney, Larocque said considerable work by the company’s engineering department was required to make sure the team rebuilding the chimneys know precisely where each colored brick was to be placed to create the initials.

“At the top of decorative element will be set just like the original. We use projection bricks to create the design and where the head flairs out, we will use corbel bricks. The bricks, weighing up to eight pounds each, are five inches tall. So, brick by brick, the original height of 91 feet is reached again.

“We will have done a 100 percent restoration of the chimneys when we finish by mid-November,” he said.

“After we are done with all the rebuilding we have to shoot gunite (liquid concrete) in the interior to re-enforce each chimney, from top to bottom,” Larocque said.

“The interior mortar joints are eroded. So instead of tuck-pointing, we can rig the spray equipment in one day and shoot it in one day.”

To pull this off, a steel beam will be secured to the top of the chimney and one man in a steel cage handles the spray gun.

Before that final phase of the restoration project begins, the interiors will also be pressure washed to clean joints and brick surfaces

“These are really small chimneys and you can only have three guys at a time up there working. The tallest concrete stack I’ve worked on was 1,250 feet in Salt Lake City, Utah, a copper smelting plant. I’ve traveled internationally doing this work and been in every state of the union but Alaska and Hawaii,” he explained.

His career more or less found him.

“The first job I had out of high school was working for a steeplejack company. I didn’t know what a steeplejack was but I found out soon enough when I found out soon enough. I was 18, and the first chimney they put me on was a 110 feet high. It was like a mile high for me. But I liked it, it was pretty cool.”

Is it still cool?

“It’s becoming a job. After this project here I’m ready to call it quits for good. I spent my whole adult life traveling and staying ion hotels. I’m just about burned out. Just like an old football player, I know when it’s time to walk away.”

Supervisor and brick layman, Robert Larocque, directs the hoisting of another load of bricks to a team on the ground who are working to rebuild the smokestacks of the old Phillips Packing Co. in Cambridge.

Before he walks away, Larocque has just one more job to do. The project made great progress despite a few days of rain and a few challenging days of high winds.

As is the case with most chimney restoration projects, too much wind can shut down work.

“By the time the winds blow 25 mph, it’s time to pull the plug, working up there. You know, these chimney’s move. Every time we pull up a load of bricks, we feel the chimney move. Just like tall buildings, they have to move, they have to sway in the wind. 

“When I was in Taiwan in 2001, I was on top of a 900-foot chimney doing a structural analysis. We were inside doing core samples of the concrete and outside the winds were 50-60 miles per hour. The chimney was swaying up to three feel with each strong wind. There were four chimneys and you could see them moving back and forth.

Men working on the Phillips chimneys didn’t face these kinds of kinds winds, but at the top, if there was any sway, the could easily feel it.

After they are done laying bricks, there’s another trip up and down the 91-foot height of the chimneys.

The team is replacing and adding steel bands to insure stability to each chimney. Larocque said that each had three bands, which were added long after the chimneys were built to minimize expansion of developing cracks. 

The cracks they repaired were the worst, at the top, he said.

Now nine, three-inch-wide custom made steel bands, each one eight of an inch thick, will encircle sections of the chimney. The bands will keep the cracks from returning, he said.

Surprisingly the deep, wide and long cracks that threatened the stability of the Phillips chimneys were not caused by lightning strikes, according to Larocque.

“This has been a challenging job, and because it was special is why I took on the restoration job. Sure looks beautiful now,” he said.

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