Lemonade, as everyone knows, is the recipe of choice when life provides lemons. For Bill Grasinger, funny advertisements are the best response when bricks rain on your metaphorical parade — or your literal sidewalk.
“My prices,” he says, smiling as he spitballs catchphrases from the comfort of a La-Z-Boy recliner in his Hovis Interiors furniture store on Chestnut Street, “are falling as fast as my bricks.”
Still unloading furniture at 75 years old, he doesn’t look like a man who has recently been hit, at least in a figurative sense, by a ton of bricks.
A sense of humor helps, he says, when you’re in a situation like the one he finds himself in. The alternatives that come to mind, which involve various methods of expressing frustration, would likely attract attention but not be very productive.
Actual improvements to the Hovis facade would be better, and that’s coming soon — not as soon as he would have liked, but soon. In fact, Grasinger said Sunday, work could begin today or Tuesday.
Repairs have been needed since Feb. 28, when apparently without warning hundreds of bricks plummeted from above the distinctive third-story windows that let in light for an army of Spirella Corset Company seamstresses more than a century ago. The bricks fell from a section approximately 14 to 15 courses high and spanning nearly half of the facade, which is about 55 feet wide.
No one was hurt in the incident and the damage was surprisingly minimal, which goes a long way toward explaining why Grasinger is able to joke about the incident months later.
Ten weeks later, no definitive cause for the brick fall has been established, but the working theory remains that water penetrated between the brick facade and the concrete structure behind it, according to Meadville Central Fire Department Chief Patrick Wiley. Freezing and thawing of such water over time could have loosened the bricks until finally they dropped to the sidewalk below.
Immediately after the incident, Wiley recalled having recently gazed up at the Hovis facade without noticing any suspicious bowing that might have indicated a problem with the bricks. In the aftermath, he has made visual surveys of other buildings in the city.
“We did find some with some loose bricks,” Wiley said. “The building owners were happy to take care of them.”
Grasinger will be glad to take care of repairs to the Hovis facade, he said, but the process has proven more involved largely due to safety concerns.
City officials’ final approval of repair plans came last week.
“We’re requiring city approval under the property maintenance code to ensure the repair is done properly,” Assistant City Manager Gary Johnson said in an email to The Meadville Tribune.
Because of concerns that the weight of replacement bricks would be too much for the building, which Grasinger said is more than 110 years old, the repaired facade will look different than what Chestnut Street visitors are used to.
“They were very worried about the safety of people walking up and down the street,” Grasinger said.
The familiar oversized squares of windows that give the building its character will remain, he added, but black metal siding will cover the facade from the top of the second-floor row of windows to the top of the building. A slight overhang will also be installed at the top of the facade.
Until then, the plywood wall erected to protect the first floor windows in case of additional brick falls will likely remain in place. It’s an eyesore Grasinger is eager to see gone.
“It will be so nice to get those boards off my door,” he said. “I keep looking out the window that I’ve looked at for 45 years and it looks like it’s midnight. It’s depressing.”
It’s demoralizing from a business standpoint, too.
D.J. York addressed Meadville City Council a month ago about an agreement that would allow his restaurant, Julian’s Bar and Grill, to use the alley alongside the restaurant for outdoor dining during the summer months. York expressed hope that other restaurants might take similar actions and improve the atmosphere in the downtown business district. The damaged Hovis facade that is just across the street and a few yards west of where diners will be seated outdoors isn’t adding to the atmosphere, according to York.
“Unfortunately, when you drive down Chestnut, it’s like a giant plywood (wall) with building falling down,” he said, drawing laughter from some at the meeting.
But last week, the sentiment among business neighbors was largely sympathetic.
Though three parking spaces within a few steps of her bakery remain inaccessible due to the protective fencing put up to keep pedestrians away from the Hovis facade, Sarah Chapp said she had no complaints and continued to tell visitors that the furniture store remained open.
“I feel very bad about what’s happening to him,” said Chapp, owner of Confections of a Cake Lover. “There’s only so much that can be done — everyone’s backlogged.”
Across the street at Mannino Italian Garden, Laura Mannino offered a similar reaction as she stretched pizza dough.
“It concerns us about customers getting here, but we have a lot of empathy for Bill,” she said. “It’s impeding his business right now.”
Looking ahead to repairs, City Manager Maryann Menanno said she did not anticipate the need for traffic modifications, such as the closure of the lane closest to Hovis. That could change, she noted, and updates would be posted to the city website and Facebook page.
At a time when many businesses, including furniture stores, are scrambling to find inventory, Grasinger has loads of La-Z-Boy recliners, not to mention couches, mattresses and the latest addition: four full-body massage chairs reminiscent of the seats astronauts ride into space, but a little fancier.
The store remains open, but the chances of attracting interest from passersby are slim when they see plywood panels covering the display windows, according to Grasinger. and even those who purposely seek out the store are challenged to find parking in the rear and then to locate the rear entrance. Those familiar with Meadville have an advantage, but a number of out-of-towners have been out of luck when it comes to making their way into the store.
“We get a lot of people from out of town,” Grasinger said. “I get people down from Erie, and they’re really perplexed.”