The McHenry Mansion, the grand dame of Modesto architecture, needs to get some air.
Volunteers are excavating soil next to the 126-year-old house in an attempt to keep moisture from undermining its brick foundation.
The city-owned mansion is not about to collapse, but the work is needed to assure that the problem does not worsen, said Wayne Mathes, cultural services manager for Modesto.
The building, at 15th and I streets, remains open for tours and special events during the work.
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The bricks form the original foundation and basement for the three-story wooden Victorian, built in 1883 by prominent rancher and banker Robert McHenry. When moisture gets into the masonry, it can crumble and flake off.
"The bricks were locally fired, and they are not as hard as the bricks we make today," Mathes said.
The problem has been evident for a few years. The city in 2006 earmarked $50,000 for a study on what was happening, but tight budgets kept the money from being spent.
The current work, done with donated labor, would make the study unnecessary if it stops the decay, said Julie Hannon, parks director for the city.
Starting Aug. 10, the volunteers removed soil up against the bricks so they could dry. The excavated earth sits in a 7-foot-high mound in the side yard along I Street.
The project also involves fixing the irrigation system and perhaps redoing the drainage and applying a sealant to the bricks.
"If we can get the bricks to dry out and then do the sealer, I think we'll be able to catch it," Hannon said.
The work is scheduled to be finished in October, just before the rainy season starts. Lattice screens have been brought in to conceal the excavation and dirt mound during weddings and other events, Hannon said.
The McHenry family lived for several decades in the mansion, which was converted to apartments in 1923. The Julio Gallo Foundation bought it in 1976 and donated it to the city for restoration and public use.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2385.