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Masonry projects often require highly skilled craftsmen

Clare Howard

Beth Akeson postponed for years chimney repair and tuckpointing on her 1938 home. Ron and Natalie Miller phased in over several years their expanded outdoor living area and kitchen.

The success of both masonry projects hinged on finding the right contractors.

It was two decades ago when Akeson and her husband, an orthopedic surgeon, first pondered buying their Peoria, Ill., home with European influences and elaborate masonry, but they were concerned about how to find a craftsman skilled in this type of repair.

They bought the home, and it wasn't until a chunk of brick popped off the chimney recently and landed more than 20 feet below next to a hot tub that the couple realized waiting was no longer an option.

"Our concern was finding someone who understood and respected the caliber of workmanship in this house. We knew we needed repairs, but there was no water damage, just an eyesore," Akeson said. "I was concerned about someone working that high up and all the scaffolding."

They'd read about Italian-trained mason Bekim Berisha, who works in the area April through November.

"When Bekim came and saw the house, he didn't hesitate. The great thing about Bekim is his experience with this type of project and his ability to discuss every detail in advance," Akeson said.

Berisha worked with Kreiling Roofing Co. on copper chimney caps. He installed the caps and repaired tuckpointing to keep moisture out of the brick work.

He also regrouted Akeson's bluestone entryway and has spoken with her about some of the exterior stone walls needing repair.

"He did a fine job, and he's easy to work with. He wants this masonry to endure, and he's not deterred by challenging work," she said

For Ron and Natalie Miller, their masonry project was a new design. The couple first saw their lot on Lake Whitehurst in Pekin, Ill., in 1998. From their vantage point, the 140-foot-deep lake in a former stone quarry had the pure ocean blues reminiscent of their favored vacations in Florida and the Caribbean.

They had their home built in 1999 and 2000 with a deck overlooking the lake.

Five years later when they began thinking about an outdoor heated pool and outdoor kitchen, they asked their builder for a recommendation, and he referred them to Stuber Land Design.

Stuber landscape architect Tom Schureman said, "We do many outdoor kitchens. We've already finished four this spring. It can be something as simple as a built-in grill to something more elaborate like Natalie's and Ron's with sinks, refrigerator-freezers, grills and warming ovens."

When kitchens are covered, equipment is protected from snow and ice, which can build up and prevent air movement over the motors. Stuber employees attend ongoing classes at the Viking distribution center in Chicago to maintain their Viking certification.

"Outdoor kitchens are very feasible in our climate. They are very popular and long overdue in our area. We're seeing many people who have older homes adding outdoor kitchens," Schureman said.

He recently constructed a Brazilian oven at the central Illinois home of a couple who had been stationed in Brazil with Caterpillar Inc.

"It's almost like a pizza oven with a rotisserie. We installed the basic kit and then did the stone masonry around it. We've already put in two outdoor fireplaces this year," Schureman said. "I've been doing this for 30 years and every time the economy drops, people spend money on their homes and yards."

Stuber has designed and installed several outdoor fire tables with granite tops and a linear panel in the center for a gas fire.

"It's for warmth and ambiance. All custom made," Schureman said.

At the Miller home, Schureman designed a granite countertop with Thermador gas grill and cook top, refrigerator and sink. Inside the nearby garage door, they have a refrigerator-freezer, ice maker and kegerator for beer.

They use the area from March through November thanks to two large patio heaters. The outdoor refrigerator runs year-round, but they drain the sink and plumbing by the end of October through mid-April.

"The pool is heated. By April 1, I was in the pool with grandkids," Ron Miller said.

Schureman designed a border of white pines on the north and south property lines that ensures privacy from neighbors and reinforces the impression of a Caribbean resort perched above an ocean inlet.

"In summer, we do all our living outside," Ron Miller said.

Natalie Miller added, "When Stuber showed us the landscape design, it just blew us away. It has everything we wanted, including a lighted bocce ball court."

Peoria Journal Star writer Clare Howard can be reached at choward@pjstar.com.