NEIGHBORHOOD: Reconstructing Springfield

They don’t make ‘em like they used to, but Springfield’s resident handyman is giving it his damnedest.

According to an article in The New York Times, back when NASA was still using the old space shuttles, sometimes it was so difficult for them to find out-of-date replacement electronics that they would actually scour eBay to find them.

photo 5 (1)Such is life when trying to repair the obsolete. Maybe someday the prevalence of 3D printers will make coming up with primitive parts a relatively easy task, but, until that time, there are men like Gary Caldwell. Caldwell owns Antiquity Reconstruction, which specializes in restoring antique housing property (and chicken coop construction, if you happen to be in the market for one). Most of his notable work has been done in Springfield, where he has been a key figure in preserving the historic neighborhood while keeping it up to community code. While Caldwell does the lion’s share of the heavy lifting, attempting to track down antiquated materials is definitely a community effort. “We try to keep everything architecturally correct,” says Caldwell, “and basically a majority of it comes from amongst the neighborhood. It’s a close knit neighborhood. A lot of people are wise enough to stockpile anything they’re not using and word of mouth helps each other along. I’ve never been in a neighborhood before where it’s this close-knit. Not just my block but the whole entire historic district. They have neighborhood block parties the first Friday of each month and you get to know quite a few people all-around.”

photo 5While working on these old houses, Caldwell has stumbled upon just about everything, from the extraordinary (Confederate currency, old baseball cards, and hidden rooms accessible only from below the house) to the mundane (beer cans behind walls that were hidden and left behind by construction crews that preceded him). Caldwell keeps a box of artifacts that he finds interesting, including one special item in particular. “What intrigued me the most was, I was removing a closet in a bedroom and was taking the plaster off the trim. I was at the very end of it and was sweeping up with a broom, and I found what looked like a dime in the bottom of all the dust. It had an X cut into it, and on the corners of the X there were four little triangles cut out to form the X. So, I put it in my pocket and took it home. Later that evening I got a scouring pad, scoured the thing up, and lo and behold it said Jacksonville Traction Company. So I Googled it, and that was the name of the old trolley cart that ran until 1936. That was a token used to ride on the trolleys.”

Caldwell moved into Springfield in the late 1980s and started meeting new friends at neighborhood work parties, where they would leisurely work on each other’s houses as part of the festivities. During the arduous five year process of restoring his old house to completion, he began also working on other people’s houses part time and then eventually on a full-time basis. Refurbishing antique homes wasn’t always Caldwell’s chosen path, however. He used to be a tree surgeon as part of his grandfather’s landscaping business until a horrific accident in 1987 where he fell 60 feet down from a pine tree, leaving him hospitalized for 99 days and debilitated for nearly two years as he faced six surgeries and extensive rehabilitation. “Given my injuries, I was having a hard time finding employment in anything I liked. I started working on my own house and after networking and getting to know people in the neighborhood, everybody started wanting me to come and work on their house. It’s been a real blessing, looking back, and there’s been some real difficult times. It’s really strenuous, hard work, but I enjoy it so much [that] makes it worthy of what it does to my body, more or less.”

Serendipitously and in congruence, as his damaged body was reconstructed and restored to optimum health, Caldwell traded a chainsaw for a circular saw, and his new profession of passion became the reconstructing and restoration of historic homes—and Springfield is all the better for it.

About Richard David Smith III

writer, lab rat, and purveyor of fine energy drinks. pro Oxford comma.