Immigrant finds joy of life in historic masonry work

Posted: April 23, 2012

Zoltan Kovacs is a big, strapping man — 6-foot-4, 230 pounds — with a body fit for his work. He is a stonemason. The other day, I watched him and a couple of helpers wrestle a 400-pound slab of rock into position atop a 16-foot chimney he rebuilt on a 19th-century house in Haverford.

Kovacs, 38, came to the United States from Hungary when he was 21. As a teenager, he was a slip of a lad. He was a distance runner who competed in marathons and triathlons. With his lanky body and long limbs, he was also an excellent swimmer. He attended an Olympic training school, and in 1990 when he was 16, he placed second in the freestyle in the Hungarian nationals.

He came to America because he was fascinated by the New World. He also had relatives here — a great-uncle and a great-grandmother who lived in Philadelphia. Because of his interest in stonework, he was impressed by the beautifully built stone houses in Germantown, Mount Airy, and Chestnut Hill.

He had learned the craft in the old country, in the village of Gyor on the border between Austria and Hungary, in the traditional way — by apprenticing himself to a master, in this case, his grandfather, Charles.

He began shadowing him when he was only 5, watching him closely, handing him tools. He was amazed by his grandfather’s skill with a chisel, the way he could transform an inchoate chunk of stone into an ornate cornerstone or sculpt the features of a face.

As he grew older, he helped his grandfather every summer, learning different chisel techniques and the art and science of mixing mortar, the correct way to combine different kinds of sand and cement, and especially the proper quantity of lime.

“The lime is critical,” Kovacs says.

He has a thick Hungarian accent and Old World manners that complement his Old World craftsmanship. His business is Zmasonry Inc., based in Chestnut Hill, and he calls himself an “art mason.” He specializes in historic restoration and derives great satisfaction from matching original bricks or stones. He has traveled for days to find sand of the right color for mortar or bricks of the right hue. He respects the original builder’s intention, whether a famous architect or a humble colonial farmer, and strives to leave no evidence of repair. He chooses stones carefully, then cuts each by hand. Like a sculptor, he sees shapes and figures in the stone waiting to be released.

“He’s like a stone whisperer,” says architect Kelly Vresilovic, for whom Kovacs has done several jobs on her Ardmore home, including repointing, and building a wine cellar, stone walls and steps, and several patios. “He thinks about each stone and has a genius for matching them. He really cares about his craft and takes tremendous pride in what he does.”

Adds Kenneth Mitchell, also an architect and the owner of the Haverford house where Kovacs replaced the chimney: “He does his work as if he’s doing it for himself, and that’s unusual these days, when people want to get in and out as fast as possible.”

In America, work is often viewed as a four-letter word, something to be avoided or minimized. Kovacs adheres to a different ethic. Hard work enables him to express his creativity. It is the wellspring of his well-being. Typically, he works seven days a week.

“I love to always create something every day,” Kovacs says. “When I’m building, it makes me feel good. It’s a lot of hard work, but I enjoy it. When you create something with natural materials, it is touching your soul because you’re communicating with nature, working with something that could be two million years old.”

The durability of stone, its seemingly eternal pedigree, comforts him and makes him proud. He feels he is upholding a noble tradition, one rooted in such marvelous structures as the pyramids, the Roman aqueducts, the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. The fruit of his labor is tangible and can be viewed with pleasure at the end of the day, and his medium offers the promise of immortality, or the illusion of such, which counts as much.

“I understand the importance of maintaining older structures because it preserves our history,” Kovacs says. “I know that one day they will be appreciated again, and I am proud I can be part of that.”

Among his projects: Drum Moir, Henry Houston’s castlelike mansion in Chestnut Hill; Chestnut Hill College; the Wharton Sinkler mansion in Wyndmoor; the Wyck House in Germantown; a 1770 farmhouse in Amityville. He does not advertise but attracts business by word of mouth.

Kovacs realizes the importance of a balanced life; he works hard and plays hard, too. Besides stone masonry, he has a passion for classic cars and auto racing. He’s a judge for the Ferrari Club and has raced “Siegfried,” his Porsche 911 Carrera, at Watkins Glen, Pocono, and Summit Point. He earned his European racing license in Germany at the legendary Nürburgring. He is aided and abetted in these pursuits by his wife, Diana, an art historian.

Fine automobiles and fine masonry share a connection: quality, which is a product of love. “Liebe und arbeit,” said Freud, when asked about the essential elements of a healthy life — love and work.

“The Tibetan monks carried stones to tops of mountains to build their monasteries, driven by the force of their beliefs,” Kovacs says. “I want to live by those ancient standards. Make it basic and simple, just following your heart and your beliefs, and then the result is joy, because it becomes a labor of love.”

“Well Being” appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers’ “GreenSpace” column. Contact Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com. Read his recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

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