NOT JUST ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL
By ANDREW MCGINN
Mark Devilbiss can point out the exact parking spot across from Muir Embroidery where his dad, Keith, would have watched daily as the front of the 144-year-old building was rebuilt, brick by brick.
Opportunities for masons to work on grand old commercial buildings — let alone a chance to rebuild one — don’t come along often, and not even Keith Devilbiss, whose 60-year career as a bricklayer included hospitals, schools and churches, was so lucky.
“People don’t build buildings like this anymore,” said Mark Devilbiss, the second-generation mason from Rippey who just happened to be the right bricklayer at the right time.
It might have been hard, in fact, to keep his dad off the scaffold.
The elder Devilbiss was tragically killed in a 2016 traffic accident that frankly hit the Rippey community (pop. 292) like a ton of bricks.
At the time, 77-year-old Keith Devilbiss had just put the finishing touches on a memorial to the Rippey School, whose gymnasium he helped build in 1957 as a young mason.
Masonry is one of those crafts that, if done right, will outlive us all.
It will be a lifetime before another mason gets to leave as heavy a mark on Jefferson’s historic downtown as Mark Devilbiss.
The 51-year-old craftsman has been helping restore the Square to glory since 2010, when his services were first enlisted to save the former Last Draw Saloon from the wrecking ball.
“Once they’re gone, they’re gone,” he said, adding that buildings like those adorning Jefferson’s Square are phenomenal reminders of a time when craftsmen built things to last.
In the case of the condemned Last Draw, the building anchoring the southeast corner of the Square was the site of Jefferson’s first movie theater in 1914.
Its preservation would prove to be a catalyst for more work just like it, including last year’s $1 million Community Development Block Grant facade rehabilitation project involving 13 buildings in the Main Street Historic District.
In the lead-up to the CDBG project, Devilbiss’ business, C&D Masonry, also rebuilt brick parapets atop 200 E. State St. and 205 N. Wilson Ave., and revived the 102-year-old brick building at 111 E. Lincoln Way revered by a generation of locals as the site of Kendall’s pool hall.
The late L.B. Kendall’s great-niece, Rosie Tucker, bought the building — by then vacant and down on its luck — and together with husband Ray recently turned it into Sensibly Chic, a thriving home decor business.
After tuck-pointing and other work by C&D Masonry, it’s fair to say the building hasn’t looked this vibrant since 1916, its distinctive pediments evoking the Prairie-style architecture of the day.
“Their attention to detail is just impeccable,” Rosie Tucker said of Devilbiss and his crew. “They take pride in what they do. You can just tell.”
For Devilbiss, though, the job of a lifetime was still yet to come.
No one wishes for a building to fall apart, but when the stuccoed facade of Muir Embroidery began giving way last June in the early stages of CDBG work, Devilbiss would be lying if he said he wasn’t a tiny bit excited at the turn of events.
“I was drooling,” he joked.
He loves restoration work in particular because it requires him to get into the mind of a fellow craftsman a century or more before.
Built in 1873, the Muir Embroidery building at 124 N. Wilson Ave. is actually the oldest-surviving structure in the Main Street Historic District.
“I love the challenge,” Devilbiss said. “I love making my mind ache at the end of the night.”
Together with C&D bricklayers Bob Villanueva and James Vesey, Devilbiss was turned loose on the Muir building by the CDBG architect.
“Imagination went into this,” he said, his eyes sparkling.
When the scaffold was finally removed in December, the big reveal was like the icing to the CDBG’s cake.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” marveled city building inspector Nick Sorensen, who worked closely during the CDBG project with the architect and construction crews.
Sorensen said it was Devilbiss’ idea to install the 1873 date block — at no additional cost.
“It took a building that was going to look like a new brick building and gave it that character,” Sorensen said.
The Muir building originally had a date block on the front of it, which they found during demolition, disintegrating underneath the stucco.
Sorensen was impressed with other Devilbiss embellishments, including limestone keystones above the arched windows.
“We had no idea what it was going to look like,” owner Todd Muir confessed. “It exceeded our expectations.”
Muir said he knew the stucco on his building had issues, but he wasn’t going to have the budget or the time to make repairs until 2020.
What he got instead exceeded the community’s expectations as well.
“The compliments just keep coming in,” Muir said.
With the facade now rebuilt, he said he’ll be repairing the stucco on the side of the building.
“I love that they gave me the liberty,” Devilbiss said. “I hate being baby-sat.”
He’s also more than happy to slip away and let the Muirs collect the accolades.
“He’s kind of too humble for his own good,” Sorensen said.
That means it takes some coaxing to get Devilbiss to pose for a photo in front of what likely will be his signature project.
Besides, his mind has already shifted to the next job, and the job after that. And when talking about prior jobs, whenever he slaps his knee, a little puff of cement dust rises off his pants from the current job.
“It’s definitely a dying art,” Sorensen said.
The next time downtown Jefferson needs refreshed, there may not be anyone qualified to do it.
“I can count on one hand how many are younger than me,” Devilbiss said.
All of his employees are in their 50s. Villanueva, for one, has worked for the Devilbiss family for the better part of 30 years.
Devilbiss is bothered by the fact that kids today are taught that the trades are a career path of last resort — something you do only if you can’t hack college.
“There’s going to come a day when I can’t do it anymore,” Devilbiss said. “Then what? Who’s going to fix my chimney?”
In reality, it’s no less a calling than being a surgeon.
Just as holding a scalpel doesn’t make one a surgeon, owning a trowel doesn’t make one a mason.
“It’s either in you or it’s not,” Devilbiss said.
Of course, a building is only as good as its foundation, and Devilbiss learned the trade — along with how to think critically — from his dad, Keith.
“You don’t have to go to school to learn,” he said.
He may have been destined all along to follow in his dad’s footsteps, recalling how he didn’t just play with cardboard bricks as a school kid — he labored over them.
“I was always making sure they were on bond,” Devilbiss said. “It was so natural.”
His dad was always pointing out when other people’s work was “off bond,” or not lined up properly.
“Everything is level and plumb or it’s not,” Devilbiss said.
Today, Devilbiss sees bad workmanship almost everywhere.
“People want cheap and fast,” he said. “We’re a throwaway society.”
When his parents divorced in fourth grade, he moved with his mom, Pat, to North Dakota. There, he developed a strong Christian faith that continues to influence his business decisions.
For one, he refuses to cut corners.
“I have to answer to God,” he explained. “I’m not going to stand before him and answer for, ‘Why did you steal $1,000 on that job?’ ”
Devilbiss returned to Iowa as a high schooler, graduating from Perry High School in 1985 and going to work with his dad.
One day, Keith Devilbiss woke up and out of the blue announced that it was to be his last day on the job. Naturally, his son thought he was joking.
“He got done and said, ‘It’s all yours,’ ” Mark Devilbiss recalled.
Suddenly, Devilbiss Construction was all his — but in a way, it would never be his alone.
Asked by a friend in Flippin, Ark., to come build the foundation of his house, Devilbiss immediately found a new kind of freedom so far from home. And when he found a church there, it felt more like home than home did.
In 1999, he moved to Arkansas, where he established C&D Masonry, in part because a name like “Devilbiss” admittedly doesn’t play well in the Bible Belt.
“Before I moved down there,” Devilbiss said, “I was Keith’s boy. Everything I did, I was almost living off of who he was.”
But in Arkansas, “I didn’t know anybody and nobody knew me,” he said. “There was no, ‘Why don’t you do it like your dad?’ ”
The move allowed Devilbiss to step out from his dad’s shadow.
When he returned home in 2009, he decided to build off his father’s legacy rather than buckle under its weight.
“There’s a right way or a wrong way,” Devilbiss said, echoing an early lesson imparted on him by his dad and on all good masons presumably going back as far as the Colosseum of ancient Rome.
Devilbiss said he can drive by projects his dad did when he was 20 that still look as good as new.
“It was done right,” he said.
Second phase of downtown work likely
After reviving the facades of 13 downtown buildings throughout the second half of 2017, momentum is clearly on the city of Jefferson’s side.
And it also doesn’t hurt that business owners left out of the project now want to keep up with the Joneses.
“I’ve been approached numerous times by people who’ve said, ‘We really like what we saw,’ ” City Administrator Mike Palmer said recently.
“We just didn’t have enough funds to do it all,” he said.
The city, he said, is likely to undertake a second round of work to revitalize an additional eight to 12 storefronts.
“If there’s ever a time to do it,” Palmer said, “it’s now.”
The original project was made possible by a $500,000 federal grant awarded to the city in 2016 known as a Community Development Block Grant. That amount was then matched — half from the Jefferson city council and half from participating building owners — for a total project worth $1 million.
“We got probably the biggest and toughest buildings done,” Palmer said.
Because of the federal grant, so much defined “blight” had to be improved by the work, according to Palmer.
A second phase is likely to be smaller in size — just $500,000 — but it’s hoped the money would go farther, Palmer said.
The city would go it alone this time, without federal funds, putting up an additional $250,000.
“We’d look for the owners to match,” he said.