Who can imagine when they're 6 years old what they'll be doing when they're 60?
Ron Carter and Malcomb Witt first heard each other's names on a late-summer morning in 1957, on the first day of first grade at Center Hill School in Bourbon County. In 1957, the year 2011 was the stuff of science fiction. It conjured images of flying cars, moon colonies and houses shaped like obelisks or saucers. What Ron and Malcomb could never have imagined is what would turn out to be fact in 2011: They would own a Bourbon County masonry company together called Carter and Witt; it would be known for its workmanship on traditional and historical homes; and their decades-long friendship would be at the heart of it all.
Carter, the son of sharecroppers, and Witt, whose parents had a dairy farm, hit it off from the start. Both boys were quick in math; in arithmetic contests, "We were always the last two standing," Carter says. Later, both took up the saxophone. Both played on the basketball team.
Looking back, those activities make perfect sense because laying brick is as much about rhythm as a Gershwin tune and, like basketball, it takes good hand-eye coordination. And the planning in masonry requires what all of us were taught but few ever use: algebra, the Pythagorean theorem, how to figure volume, etc.
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"I treat brickwork like pure mathematics. Every brick has a specified position," Carter says. "I like to know where my last brick is going to be laid before I lay the first one."
He's standing outside Old Vine Square, a three-story Williamsburg-inspired office building near downtown Lexington that is one of the more public examples of their work. Built with 90,000 bricks salvaged from an old distillery warehouse, it features Roman arches at ground level, wedge-shaped jack arches over the windows, and a style of bricklaying called English bond, which uses alternating courses of headers and stretchers. Carter's eyes scan it now, 22 years after it was finished, searching for imperfections.
"For me, laying brick well is very much like playing music," Carter says. "You are taken over by the process, and it just flows. To do it well, it requires your total concentration, but for an accomplished mason, it is not necessarily an intellectual process. That process occurred when you were learning the fundamentals. Now you are operating by body memory — the motions you have repeated thousands of times. You have rhythm, flow, momentum."
Ultimately, however, it might have been Carter's and Witt's farm backgrounds that determined their careers. Both were raised in a tradition, Carter says, in which work was defined as "something you do outside."
Bubble, bubble, toil and struggle
After graduating from Bourbon County High, both young men went to Eastern Kentucky University. Witt majored in marketing; Carter studied music performance. In summers, Witt had a job with Hickey Masonry in Lexington. Carter's grandfather and uncle were both with Ed Ruggles Masonry, and driven by economics, Carter started working with them. "Dad only paid me $6 a day to work on the farm, but my uncle paid $1.60 an hour," Carter says.
They began as "hod carriers," toting and stacking bricks and mixing mortar. Soon, both were laying brick. "My grandfather was always intent on teaching me the trade," Carter says. "His wife's uncle had taught him. I'm a fourth-generation mason." And Witt "was a natural. He had a flow to his work that was Zen-like." Soon the two young men felt confident enough to collaborate on small jobs of their own.
Still thinking their futures lay somewhere other than masonry, Witt went to work as a trouble-shooter for Kroger after college, and Carter went to graduate school in music theory. But the indoor world of academia grew stuffy, and job prospects for a music instructor were slim. Carter decided to work full-time with his uncle.
"He'd call me 'professor.' He'd say, "Hey, professor, look what you've done here. Where's the bubble?'" meaning the row wasn't perfectly level. Tensions built up. "He and I weren't clicking," Carter says. He talked about it to Witt, who wasn't happy in his corporate job. Carter told him, "If you want to come back, I'd love to be your partner." In 1979, they started their business.
The first two years were a struggle. "We did without a lot to make this happen," Witt says. But suppliers gave their name out, and if someone asked, "Can you do this?" they would say yes automatically, even if they'd never done "this" before. The pair quickly learned the value of a good contractor when they worked a couple of low-bid jobs. "Everybody was coming on the job angry because the general contractor wasn't handling things right," Carter says. After that, they avoided commercial and government-financed work.
A contractor named Clarence Hefflin gave them a lot of work, building horse barns on Bunker Hunt's farm. "Hefflin put a lot of trust in us," Carter says. "Things just got rolling from there."
Their biggest break came in the mid-'80s, with Arthur Hancock's Stone Farm. "We built seven barns and ended up doing his house. It was our first major stone job. We went from four to five people to 22. We've never been that big since," Carter says. Like everyone else in the building trades, they've been hit hard by the recession. "We have six people we'd like to rehire, but we don't have work for them." It's painful. Working on a wall, the crew becomes like family. "Our employees have been essential to this business," Carter says.
Scaling new heights and lengths
Every job taught them something. Witt took to the stonework at Hancock's farm immediately.
"Arthur Hancock would ask me, 'Where'd you learn how to do this?' and I'd answer, 'Right here, Arthur, I'm learning it right here,'" Witt says. Unlike brickwork, stonework involves constant creativity: "You're not confined to a standard dimension. Your scope is unlimited as far as size," he says. The kind of planning required is more like chess than mathematics.
The Hancock project lasted two years; other big jobs followed. Before starting on one, Carter looked at the vast scale model, looked at the owner, and said, "You do realize this is 1⁄8-inch to the foot here?" The finished house was the length of a football field. A tour of the company's work in Lexington includes large brick homes on exclusive McMeekin Place and a limestone addition to a 1926 Robert McMeekin home on Richmond Road. It includes the restored bell tower at Christ Church Cathedral. In Bourbon County, there are stops at homes from the early 1800s and the late 1960s. Greenwood Farm was a three-year affair that included bridges, outbuildings and the architect's instructions on one garage to "make it look as though farm laborers built it."
Work on a French-style manor meant sawing and chiseling huge blocks of Indiana fieldstone at the site, then finishing off the brick walk with a sentimental touch — a piece from the owner's old elementary school in Cincinnati. Another job sent Carter and Witt driving into a quarry a mile underground with 36-inch saw blades to cut out sections of river marble. It's not someplace they could have seen themselves when they started out working summers in college.
"The nature of the work demanded us to grow. We had no business plan. All we've ever done is react," Carter says.
In their fourth decade of working together, Carter can tell by the way Witt gets out of the truck what kind of mood he's in. "It's like a marriage." One digit separates their cellphone numbers. "We complement each other," Witt says. "If he gets the guys fired up, I'll try to put things back on an even keel."
First and lasting impressions
Restoration work provides its own challenges. Matching new work to old is a painstaking process. Carter recalls a passage from Studs Terkel's Working, a 1972 classic in which people in various occupations talk about their jobs. In one section, a mason describes the pride he feels when his work bricking up a doorway is undetectable from the rest of the 100-year-old wall. It's a feeling Carter and Witt understand. "We had to line an old fireplace in Bourbon County," Carter says. "When we cleaned it, I would dare any bricklayer to find where we'd been."
The goal in restoration is to be undetectable, but it's clear where they've been in new construction. The work is out there to look at whenever they drive by, and sometimes they wish they could do it over — at least a brick or two. And it will be there for years. Masons enjoy a certain immortality, said the one interviewed in Working.
The old Center Hill School, where first-grade teacher Carlisle Smart called roll in 1957, closed long ago. But it's standing, evoking memories from former students who drive by. Neither Witt nor Carter could have imagined that first day the partnership that lay ahead. By the following year, in Maxey Swinford's second-grade class, they were fast friends. What Miss Swinford could not have imagined is that 50 years later, the two boys would repair her chimney.