Words: Zachary Stella
Pictures: Mirage Stone Works, Curbed Detroit
Masonry often gets chalked up to be a straightforward process: mix mortar or grout to construct the bricks, lay the bricks in a course, rinse and repeat. Yes, stoneworkers will regularly do this kind of labor on their job sites, but they are also fully capable of creating much more sophisticated stoneworks. In opposition to simplistic perceptions of masonry work, the stoneworks of Detroit testify to such sophistication, standing as some of the most carefully crafted and beautiful structures in the world.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that many of the stoneworks of Detroit are works of art. The Detroit Institute of Art, for instance, sports the “Art Deco” style often associated with works exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair, a unique, modern art style that exudes classiness. To execute such an artistic feat requires a level of craftsmanship that only the most talented stonemasons can obtain.
The Standish Bakus Mansion in Grosse Pointe, in a similar sense, with its castle-like roofing details and overall royal aesthetic, is a structure that is difficult to imitate. Its distinct features, again, require a high level of skill to craft. In this way, The Standish Bakus Mansion has set the global standards in new residential Tudor stone mansions. Indeed, there are a myriad of Detroit stoneworks to appreciate. Its more important to highlight the individuals that designed such projects, however.
Many of the professionals behind some of Detroit’s most famous stoneworks honed their craft in Europe. Italy, in particular, has produced some of the most talented and sought-after stonemasons and fabricators in the industry. Italian trained stonemasons are next to none and, even since the early twentieth century, have been in high demand in the industry. To see why it’s worth considering the case of one prominent Italian-trained stonemason currently practicing in the Detroit area
Sassine Helou, who has been working in the industry for around 35 years, has always been interested in working with stone, even as a teenager. Once he came of age, he launched himself into the craft of masonry by attending trade school. Between 1991 and 1994, he took classes on carving, remodeling, and restoration in Italy. Shortly after, he moved to the U.S. and went on to establish Mirage Stoneworks in Sterling Heights just north of the city. To this day, Mirage Stoneworks remains one of only a few Michigan masonry companies that provide authentic, Italian-trained masonry service.
Mirage Stoneworks specializes in stone fabrication, a service especially sought after in Detroit and necessary for building Tudor stone mansions similar to the Standish Bakus. Today, not many Tudor stone mansions are being built in Michigan, but Mirage is up to the job, eager to work with enthusiastic clients who want the strength and beauty of personal stonework craftsmanship. As Mirage states on their website, they are prepared to offer a range of services:
From interior work to exterior work, entry ways, and outdoor structures, Mirage Stoneworks s provides complete residential and commercial stone fabrication.
On a smaller scale, Mirage is also a premium supplier of granite and other stone products. They provide countertops, fireplaces, custom stone sculptures, stone construction, and general stonework, among others. Indeed, Mirage Stoneworks continues to thrive as a business and serve Detroit and its local communities. Impressively, Mirage is a “one man show,” as Sassine puts it. He is a well-trained craftsman with “exquisite attention to detail,” his Facebook page describes. Throughout his career, Sassine has really made a name for himself and he still finds much enjoyment in the work that he does.
Sassine possesses many different skill sets and can create a variety of stonework products, but where his Italian training shines through the most is in his design methods and work approach. Every week he has different projects. As a complete stone fabrication service, Mirage Stoneworks can carry any project from concept through build and installation. After making trips to places like Costco to purchase materials, he begins his process.
|“Work as the customer asks.” – Sassine Helou
For a lot of those projects, he works closely with architects and engineers to work on the design and sketch out, based on previous projects, what the product will generally look like. Regarding clients’ specific customizations and needs, Sassine discusses personal detailings with them over the phone. He also has clients send him design references so he has a better idea of what they want. He has plenty of experience and a great network of people to help him get started, but at the core of his philosophy, clients are the main focus of the design; the customer drives the design. This is what he was taught in Italy, “work as the customer asks.”
After he gets a sketch and he has a picture from the client of, for example, a carved banister, he moves on to the carving. Mirage Stoneworks is “a true stone fabrication facility,” equipped with tools and skills to create stone structures from scratch. He finds that working with Indiana limestone is the best for these kinds of jobs. “It’s easy to curve with, and you can do whatever you want with it.” He adds that Indiana limestone is, “the stone to that is most available to work within Michigan.” He also likes to work with granite, which he nicely describes on his website as “a natural earth material characterized by the unique beauty, resilience, and rich texture.” He also works with Carrara marble, especially when he is commissioned for sinks and countertops. For the majority of his stone carving work, though, Indiana limestone is the default!
The stone products he makes as a result of his labor speak for themselves. The touch he gives to his creations is special, personal, and masterful. His Italian training is apparent in his work and gives off the same sense of luxury and classiness found in Detroit’s most famous structures. To his pleasure, Sassine has the privilege of carrying the tradition of European stonework in Detroit and is very gratified by the opportunities he has been given. Similarly gratifying, as notes is being able to make his hobby into his job.
Last month, Sassine completed a deck in Shelby that proved to be one of his biggest recent projects. Naturally, he carved everything by hand, installed the deck himself, and even painted it. This is just an example of the range of services he and his business can provide. Now at the age of 57, with no prospect of slowing down any time soon, Sassine intends to keep persisting with his business as well as keep growing his knowledge about the trade. He mentions that he is currently focusing on learning more about restoration remodeling, monument remodeling, and masonry.
Even after nearly 40 years, he remains a student of the craft, which beyond being humble, shows unwavering devotion spanning across the course of his career, from abroad to Michigan. Needless to say, the value of his Italian training and experience runs deep and continues to make a strong, lasting impression on Detroit and its surrounding communities.