August 16, 2010 | Myrna Anderson

Michael Rodriguez works to restore historical buildings in and around GR.

On a recent Friday evening, Michael Rodriguez left his keys behind at work. His workplace was locked. It was also 150 feet in the air—at the top of the scaffolding that currently runs alongside the south bell tower of the Basilica of St. Adalbert.

Michael Rodriguez holding a copper plateRodriguez, 24, works for Grand River Builders, the company that is replacing the copper that covers the three domes of the 122-year-old basilica in downtown Grand Rapids. Before he could commence his weekend, he was forced to climb over a gate and up nine flights of metal stairs to retrieve his keys. “It was heartbreaking” commented the May 2010 Calvin graduate. “Even though we go up and down the scaffolding at least several times a day—and usually carrying a load of tools and supplies—it was an exhausting thought to realize that I had to climb all the way to the top again.”

Working up high

Rodriguez has had plenty of experience working way up high. Last year, the company worked on a restoration of another downtown structure: the 137-year-old St. Mary’s Catholic Church, whose steeple is 200 feet tall. “One of the first conditions when I was hired was that I not be afraid of heights,” he said.

Grand River Builders specializes in all facets of historic restoration, and Rodriguez has spent his summers working for the company since 2007. He is learning how to re-point masonry, replace architectural sheet metal, do rough or fine carpentry, install terra cotta or ceramic tile roofing—whatever the job requires:

"Much of what we do is exactly as it was 200 years ago. That’s interesting because it really makes you re-consider the lifespan of a building. The copper that we took down was 100 years old,” he said of the sheets that covered St. Adalbert’s domes, “and the copper we’re putting up will last just as long.”

Working with various kinds of materials is one kind of challenge, said Rodriguez, and working at great heights is another: “Logistics is a lot of the work because much of the work is high off the ground,” he said. "It requires a lot of energy and planning to be efficient when you’re high off the ground—and you have to be careful too.”

It’s not a cushy job, he admitted. “You do have to be in good shape to do this kind of work 40 hours a week.” It was a bit of a strain every May to re-adapt to construction work from a “student’s sedentary lifestyle,” he added. “I always feel sore muscles the first few weeks.”

Nuts and bolts

Michael Rodriguez hauling rope up the scaffoldNevertheless, Rodriguez, who plans to be an architect, likes his work. “Working with such old structures, you see how things were put together 100, 120 years ago,” he said. “And I think that really will be an asset to my architecture career.”

While at Calvin, Rodriguez handled a complex major: art, Spanish and interdisciplinary studies in sociology and geography. He was an active member of the Architecture Club, served two years on Student Senate (one as part of the executive team) and assisted visiting sculptor Roger Feldman in creating an outdoor sculptural installation for Charis: Neighbors, Strangers, Family, Friends, Boundary Crossings. Rodriguez also won a recent competition to re-design the entry to Calvin’s Ecosystem Preserve.

"What Michael is particularly good at is having insight into himself and the guys around him, and having him present on the job site for a long period of time is just good for people on the job,” said Dan Beelen, the owner of Grand River Builders (who allowed that Rodriguez is also getting pretty good at “trimming the shingles to fit against the hip caps.”)

"I get the best of everything,” said Rodriguez, who wants to stay on the job for at least another year. “I work with my hands, but in doing that I also get to see many of west Michigan’s most historic structures.”

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