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The West Lawrence wall

November 12, 2013

by Lauren Darman

His name may be commonplace, but Mike Smith’s Pine Hills front yard stands out from all the rest in the neighborhood as an individual creation of strong beauty.  Stroll down West Lawrence Street from Madison, and after the hemlock hedges and the well-cared-for square lawns, you will pass what at first looks like a pile of rocks, as if God himself plunged his fist into the ground.  Smith’s stone installation, for it is much more than a dry stone retaining wall, may be seen in all its in-progress chaos and glory. It is one man’s project, drawn on a piece of paper and built from the ground up.  It is a modern man’s foray back to the Stone Age.

West Lawrence Street before reconstruction.

West Lawrence Street before reconstruction.

Smith bought his house in the Pine Hills when the Madison Theatre was still the Norma Jean, Price Chopper had a gas station in the parking lot, and Clapp’s Stationary store was just going out of business.  His home came with a two-foot New York State bluestone wall, built by their neighbor, and former owner, Laura Cataldo’s father.  It separated the postage-stamp size lawn from the sidewalk (seen in photo).Smith works as an IT manager at Farm Family Casualty Insurance Company in Glenmont; he has been there for 22 years after attending Hudson Valley Community College and graduating from University at Albany with a degree in computer science. He works with technology all day – he is in the ether world of computer programming, cables and connections, managing three teams of people who help connect the main office to its branches and users.  It is an invisible world of intangibles, problems solved with the click of a mouse or a line or two of code.

In his domestic life Smith had a more concrete problem after a contractor dug up his front lawn to lay down new sewer lines.  He could have reseeded his lawn and rebuilt the stone hedge, but this is a guy who sanded his own wood floors during his spare time.  Smith “never does anything small” according to his neighbor from across the street Tom Vaughan.

Corner rock construction.

Corner rock construction.

Smith’s  a hiker in the Adirondacks (climbed 18 peaks so far), though not quite a mountain man in demeanor or appearance.  He felt he could rebuild the wall bigger and better, starting from left to right (see photo at right), ordering his stone from the Alcove Quarry near his hometown of Coxsackie and having it cut at Adam Ross in North Albany.   In retrospect Smith wishes he “was younger and faster”; it has been four years since he began this mid-life project.Smith’s end of West Lawrence is still mainly single-family homes, but around the corner there are plenty of student rentals for Saint Rose and University at Albany.  Though his house doesn’t have a driveway or a garage, Smith said he never has a problem finding a parking spot and hasn’t had a “problem with vandalism or graffiti”, though his neighbor said that Smith lost a few of his stones, possibly to students building an impromptu fire pit.

Young professionals as well as retired people live on the street, and Smith knows most of his neighbors.  Vaughan said that Smith has become “an amazing icon in this neighborhood” for the work he is doing outside on his home.  Everyone talks to him as they walk by his garden of stone.

It takes a special person to face a pallet of stone at a time – approximately one-and-a-half tons – for a total of 40 tons.  Smith then sorts the stones by shape and color, using the original bluestone as a base, as he works intently  from left to right in the yard on his igneous Jenga-like puzzle.  “All of a sudden it fits,” Smith said.

The steps are complete.

The steps are complete.

He figured he could do it all himself, on the nights and weekends, in a year or two, but he didn’t plan on hurting his back or a small gas leak which temporarily shut down the re-construction.  Friends and neighbors helped him lift the heavier flat pieces that serve as steps.Smith did his homework on his Craftsman-like house– checking the Polk directory for the original owner’s name and origin, researching the history of the house, and learning that you do not need a work permit from the city if the project is landscaping less than four feet tall.  This is a guy who knows how to find information yet knew nothing about landscaping nor did any research on building rock walls, but he was confident in his abilities after doing a small installation in the backyard first.

Though not inspired by personal history or ethnic background, Smith’s face becomes animated as he discusses the way in which the walls are constructed, how the edges are cut and how he has figured out how to make the inner and outer curves “work on friction”, using his two hands and four fingers as measuring tools.  Working at night and on weekends, this endeavor is a far cry from his day job looking at a computer screen in a climate-controlled environment.

Almost completed Fall 2013

Almost completed Fall 2013

It‘s a difficult and lengthy project, still unfinished, but Smith says he will persevere until the light fades early in December.  Smith isn’t done with his dream house– he plans a water-feature installation in his backyard and replacement of the hundred-year-old front porch.Since the dawn of time man has used rock to create shelter for himself and his family.  Though he may not be a man for all seasons or in dire need of shelter, Smith’s creation in his front yard reminds one of druids and cairns, something ancient being remade in 21st century Pine Hills by a modern man with a primitive  urge.

(All photos courtesy of Mike Smith)



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