Tuesday, June 30, 2009

America's Building Stone - Chapter 6

Go to any city across the country and you will find one building stone in all of them: Salem Limestone from Indiana. People pray, have babies, get drivers licenses, and file for divorce in structures made from this 330-million-year old buff rock. Salem was also the first stone that many people encountered when they entered the United States; the administration building at Ellis Island was completed in 1900 with Salem Limestone trimming the red brick.

As with most building stones, use of Salem started locally with workers hauling blocks eight miles for the foundation and window sills of a county courthouse in 1819. The first quarry opened eight years later but little stone made it outside Indiana until the railroad reached Bedford and Bloomington in 1853.

The big break for Salem quarriers came in 1871 when Chicago burned to the ground. Within a few years, Indiana quarrymen had set up shop to promote their stone. One promoter wrote, “This purity insures absolute integrity on exposures to the fumes of coal, while the perfect elasticity and flexibility of the mass render it invulnerable to the forces of cold and heat, air and moisture.” Others claimed that the stone cleaned itself and that it had withstood the ice age “scarcely changed in any part.”

The Salem soon became the stone of Chicago. In 1889 William Vanderbilt ordered 25 carloads for a mansion on Fifth Avenue and his august imprimatur spurred others to follow. Within a decade Salem dominated markets in Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Cedar Rapids.

Several aspects of Salem Limestone combined to make everyone from Odd Fellows to opera fans incorporate the stone in their structures. Stone masons can cut, plane, flute, and carve the Salem easily and in all directions and once shaped, Salem hardens over time. It splits evenly, and in any direction. When rock had to bear the weight of a building, Salem excelled because of its low compressibility. When stone became a skin hanging on a steel skeleton, Salem remained popular because of its ease in cutting.

Changes in architectural fashions also helped sell Salem Limestone. In the last quarter of the 19th century, architects turned away from the dark, somber stones, such as brownstone, that dominated cities in the eastern United States. Salem Limestone also benefited from the growth of coal-fired plants, because Salem stones did not disintegrate under attack by coal-generated pollution like other limestones. (As geologist David Dale Owen wrote in 1838, Salem Limestone “would imbibe less water.”) By 1928, the peak year of production, Indiana quarries provided 70% of all exterior building stone used in the United States.

Salem Limestone quarries are still active, shipping rock as far as Japan and Turkey. In the United States, Salem-clad buildings occur in all 50 states, and include 27 state capitols, 750 post offices, and 200-plus courthouses. It is the most commonly used building stone in the country.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Clam That Changed the World - Chapter 5

Hardly anyone thinks that clams changed the world. Most are benign, industrious critters toiling away in the sand or resting quietly in the sea. If we do consider them, it’s mostly because many are edible and some produce valuable, nacre-coated irritants worn as fashion. Perhaps the most famous bivalve in the world is the one that supports Venus in Botticelli’s legendary painting, The Birth of Venus. Botticelli depicts the Roman Goddess of beauty and love using the shell as a mode of transport as she arrives on land, blown by the winds. Although unrealistic as a way to travel, Botticelli’s shell does fit the classic image of a bivalve, something trod under foot.

Castillo de San Marcos, courtesy of National Park Service

Thus some find it odd that a bivalve, in particular a much smaller clam than the one that carried the lovely Venus, was seminal to the early history of colonization of North America. Carolina governor James Moore was the first to discover the power of the clam when he lay siege to the Spanish town of St. Augustine, Florida, in 1702. Moore attacked St. Augustine with 800 men, which forced all of the town’s residents into their recently completed fort, known as Castillo de San Marcos.

For six weeks, Moore bombarded the Castillo, but with no luck. Cannonballs either bounced off of or stuck in the fort without breaking the walls. What was the miraculous building material? It was an unusual variety of limestone called coquina (Spanish for “little shell”), which outcrops along the northern Florida coast. It formed 110,000 years ago as billions of bivalves accumulated on beaches. By far the most abundant bivalve is the coquina clam, Donax variabilis, the clam that changed the world.

Moore eventually abandoned his nefarious plans and retreated back to Carolina. Thirty years later the English tried once more to take St. Augustine. Again they failed because of the coquina, leading one British soldier to express “[it] will not splinter but will give way to a cannon ball as though you would stick a knife into cheese." Without the clam, one can argue that the English would have succeeded in invading St. Augustine, driven the Spanish out of Florida, and who knows how the world would have turned out.

But because of the clam, no armed force ever took St. Augustine. The Castillo still stands, a wonderful tribute to the power of stone to influence architecture, history, and politics.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Earmarks and geology

There has been a big stink of late in Seattle about a proposal by our congressional representative, Jim McDermott, to obtain $250,000 for a tony social club in the city. Seems that The Rainier Club is having issues with some of its windows and wants to rehab them. Unfortunately, the club's members have been willing to pony up only half the cash for repair work. This is where McDermott has stepped in. He included money for the club as part of a number of requests he made to the House Appropriations Committee.
Rainier Club from Wikipedia
Since the local paper reported the story, readers have expressed much indignation. How could such a club, long a haven restricted to men only, get money in such dire times?

I don't want to comment exclusively on the request, but would like to point out something that no one has noted - the repair work would be for window sills made of Salem Limestone. The builders of the Club's home used the 330-million- year old Indiana rock as a contrast to the main building material, brick, both inside and outside. Of particular note is the low exterior wall next to the sidewalk, a place I often stop on my building stone tours because of its excellent display of fossils. These include bryozoans, crinoids, and brachiopods. Ironically, quarry workers in Indiana consider this fossiliferous stone to be of inferior quality, mostly because it is less homogeneous than other layers of the Salem.

I think that providing money for the Rainier Club is rather absurd but I am loath to completely criticize McDermott. I can certainly think of worse ways to spend our federal money than on Salem Limestone.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Most Beautiful Building Stone in the Country

My favorite liquor store in the country is in Morton, Minnesota. It’s an odd sort of store, mostly bar, with a small section up front where one can buy bottles. I, of course, don’t like it for its alcohol selection, but for its architecture, or more particularly its cladding. I am guessing but feel confident that no other liquor store in the country, perhaps in the world, is built with older stone. The rock that covers the liquor store is the 3.5-billion-year old Morton Gneiss, what one geologist calls “the most beautiful building stone in the country.”

Rectangular, two stories tall, and clad partially in brick, the Morton liquor store has a practical appearance, though it does incorporate some semblance of an aesthetic with the cornice and frieze. They have a pattern of outlined squares atop two, horizontal rows of raised bricks, which rest on another row of inverted, stepped pyramids. A faded red awning adds another touch of character, boldly proclaiming in large white letters, MORTON LIQUOR.

The gneiss starts below the cornice. Pink and black layers swirl around each other as if they are still fluid. Other layers look stretched and torn like taffy. Four inch-wide eyes of black minerals, complete with white eyebrows, dot the variegated layers. I cannot imagine trying to contemplate this wall of stone after spending a few hours partaking of the goods sold within.

Known in the trade as Rainbow Granite, the stone has been quarried in Morton since 1884. Cold Spring Granite has longed owned the quarry, which is opened on a limited basis. Because of the stone’s unusual color and patterns, it was a popular building material during the 1920s and 1930s, when Art Deco architecture was all the rage.

The Qwest Building in Minneapolis, originally the Northwestern Bell Telephone Building, built 1930-1932

Morton clad structures can be found around the country. The tallest is in New York, the 952-foot high AIG building (formerly Cities Service). The most northern is in Seattle, the Seattle Exchange Building. The closest to John Wayne’s birthplace in Winterset, Iowa, is in Des Moines, the Bankers Life Insurance Building. The most recently converted to lofts is in Birmingham, Alabama, the Watts Building.

Up close with the Morton Gneiss

Geologists had long known that the Morton Gneiss was very old but not until 1956 when Samuel Goldich and three other geologists published a crystallization date of 2.4 billion years did geologists learn how old. Previously, geologists had simply used undated terms such as primitive, Huronian, and Archean. Seven years after Goldich’s discovery, Ed Catanzaro pushed the date back to 3.2 billion years, the oldest age so far determined on this continent. Not to be outdone, Goldich reanalyzed the Morton and came up with a date of 3.55 billion years. In November 1974, the rock became even older when Goldich reported the Morton was 3.8 billion years old, not just the oldest rocks on North America but the oldest rocks on Earth. As one can imagine there was much rejoicing.

The Morton Gneiss Quarry, in Morton

Fame was fleeting though. By 1980, the age of the Morton had dropped back to 3.5 billion years. In 2006, Pat Bickford, emeritus professor of petrology at Syracuse University, led a team of researchers who obtained the Morton’s most up to date age of 3,524 million years. Although the Morton is but a babe compared to the oldest rocks on Earth, it is still the oldest, most commonly used building stone in the world. And, in my opinion, one of the best looking.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Poetry in Stone - Robinson Jeffers

Granite so infused the life of Robinson Jeffers that it helped transform him from a imitative, mediocre poet to one of the great American poets of the 20th century. His transformation occurred during the time he built his house, built on a barren knoll that jutted out into the Pacific Ocean in Carmel, California. Jeffers built what he and his wife called Tor House and the accompanying Hawk Tower between 1919 and 1925.

“My fingers had the art to make stone love stone,” wrote Jeffers in a poetic tribute to Tor House. His intimate knowledge of rocks came from the years he spent finding, carrying, and placing boulders for his exquisite little home. During the 44 years he lived at Tor House, Jeffers developed what Loren Eisely called “one of the most uncanny and complete relationships between a man and his natural background, that I know in literature."

Looking toward the ocean from the garden at Tor House

I first saw Tor House and Hawk Tower in 2002 from the road that runs along the water below them. Light green grasses, gray-green shrubs and a few light gray boulders covered the slope leading up to the stone buildings. The house is squat with a narrow row of windows just below a small triangle of brown roof. The tower is square, about half the width of the house, and topped by a square turret with two eye-like windows opening out to the ocean behind me. The structures didn’t appear to be built so much as they appeared to emerge geologically from the hillside, as if Jeffers had used the nearby cliffs, seastacks, and outcroppings for blueprints.

Tor House and Hawk Tower

Up close, the buildings sustained my first impressions of geology manifest as home. No two stones were alike and rarely did stones of the same size rest next to each other. Edges were not perfectly straight but looked weathered and eroded. Barnacles still covered some of the stones Jeffers liberated from the sea. Finger trails ran through the mortar, trace fossils of a man and his passion.

Hawk Tower

His passion and intimacy with rock reveals itself in his poetry. I love his imagery of rocks as the “bones of the old mother” or the “world’s cradle.” Waves are “drunken quarrymen/Climbing the cliff, hewing out more stone for me.” The surf “cheerfully pounds the worn granite drum.” During erosion the “hills dissolve and are liquidated.”

And it is clear Jeffers felt the tremor of at least one earthquake. He wrote:

…the teeth of the fracture

Gnashed together, snapping on each other; the powers

of the earth drank

Their pang of unendurable release and the old resistances

Locked. The long coast was shaken like a leaf.

In a second, haunting description:

The heads of the high redwoods down the deep canyon

Rippled, instantly earthquake shook the granite-boned

ridge like a rat

In a dog’s teeth; the house danced and bobbled,

lightning flashed from the ground, the deep earth roared

yellow dust

Was seen rising in divers places and rock-slides

Roared in the gorges; then all things stilled and the

earth stood quiet.

Jeffers clearly paid attention to the natural world around him. Ever since his childhood he had had a connection to nature but not until he settled in Carmel and worked on the land did he develop the knowledge that gave him a voice to describe place. And this relationship centered on the house and tower he built from granite boulders on a low, barren knoll overlooking the sea.

“The place was maiden, no previous/Building, no neighbors, nothing but the elements, Rock, wind and sea,” wrote Jeffers in a poem titled The Last Conservative. How could he build any other type of structure? How could I not love that building? In his ode to Tor House, Jeffers concludes “My ghost you needn’t look for; it is probably here, but a dark one, deep in granite.”

Monday, June 8, 2009

America's First Commercial Railroad - Quincy Granite

Architect/engineer named Solomon Willard arrived in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1825. Legend holds that he had walked 300 miles across New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts in search of the perfect granite for what would become his most famous building, the Bunker Hill Monument. Willard found that granite at a ledge in a wooded area.

It was a dark gray granite, which formed around 450 million years. Now known as the Quincy (pronounced Quin-ZEE) Granite, it is an unusual granite. Most granites contain two types of the mineral feldspar, broadly called plagioclase feldspar and alkali feldspar. In contrast, Quincy contains only alkali feldspar, a result of solidifying at a high temperature. Alkali feldspar gives the rock its characteristic green-tinted, dusky gray color. (One Quincy quarry owner called himself the “Extra Dark Man” because of the particularly dark stone excavated from his property.) Further darkening results from the Quincy’s nearly black quartz, as opposed to the more common clear or white varieties.

But back to Willard. The location of the granite presented a challenge. How would he move blocks that weighed up to 6 tons across the 12 miles of swamp, forest, and farms that separated Quincy from Charlestown, where the monument would be erected? Willard favored either a completely overland route or moving the stone in winter, when sledges could carry the blocks to the Neponset River, four miles north. A barge would transport the stone through Boston Harbor to Charlestown, which formed a peninsula on the north side of the Charles River, due north of downtown Boston.

Another engineer and associate of Willard’s, Gridley Bryant, however, suggested that a railroad would be more efficient. With the support of Boston merchant and philanthropist, Thomas Perkins, Bryant ended up designing what would become the first, commercial railroad in the United states. Pulled by horses, the railcar ran through a swamp and gently downhill to the river, where it ended at a 1,200-foot-long wharf, which took six months to build and cost two-thirds of the total $50,000 price of the railroad.

Bryant’s most innovative design was his rail car, fourteen feet long, eleven feet tall, and supported by six-and-one-half-foot high wheels. The empty car would back up to where the cut blocks were. Workers would turn gears on the car, which would lower a pallet supported by six chains. They would unhook the pallet, move the car forward, load a block or blocks, and back the car up again. One man could raise a six-ton block, which could be up to three feet wide and 32 inches high.

Scanned from the Quincy Historical Society newsletter, No. 26, Fall 1991

Bryant made the first test run of the railroad on October 7, 1826, on what became known as the Granite Railway. Workers loaded three cars with 16 tons of rock and a single horse pulled the entire load. Despite the railway's success, work didn't began on the monument till April 1827. It was finished in 1842. A formal dedication took place the following year, with 110 Revolutionary War veterans present, including 97-year-old Phineas Johnson, who had fought at Bunker Hill 68 years earlier. The cost to build the monument was $101,680, basically on budget.

Even before completion of the monument, its construction, as well as the development of the Granite Railway, led to granite finally becoming the preeminent building stone in Boston. Willard showed that large blocks could be used and transported, and by refining quarry techniques, he helped drive the price down by 75 percent. The popularity of the Quincy granite eventually led to 53 additional quarries opening around Quincy and gave the town its moniker, “The Granite City.”

A few remnants of the Granite Railway can still be at Willard's original quarry, as well as the Granite Rail Quarry. And the area is listed as a National Historic Place. Unfortunately, the great quarry was filled in several years ago with dirt from Boston's Big Dig.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Whales in the Kitchen

On the front page of the MSN.com site, there is a tantalizing story about whale fossils found in a kitchen countertop. The story links to a video about National Geographic-funded researchers (Episode 412---Looking Back; check listings for local air dates) studied slabs of limestone that had been discovered to contain the fossils. The stone was cut in Italy but came from Egypt.

The video starts by showing panels of what looks like Carrara marble and then describes how the masons noticed the fossils. We get a mason exclaiming how they had no idea what they had found, but fortunately they told someone who did, who then contacted Philip Gingerich, who in addition to studying Darwinius masillae, studies whales. Gingerich and team went to Egypt and confirmed that the whale fossils in the limestone slab were unusual. They also found fossils from mammals that lived 20 million years later, about 18-20 million years ago, but were not part of the stone being quarried.

The story illustrates several of my favorite aspects of building stones. One is how the quarries open up new areas for geologists to explore. Two, building stone has many stories to tell. And three, stone gets shipped around the world so it isn't odd to find Egyptian rock in an Italian quarry, which may then ship that stone to the United States. It's just too bad that the stone didn't really end up in a countertop.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"The Most Hideous Stone Ever Quarried"

As I noted in my previous blog posting about Stories in Stone, when my wife and I moved to Boston in 1996 from Utah, I went into rock withdrawal. So, like a good geologist should do, I began to seek out nearby rocks in the local buildings. One of my favorites was Harvard Hall on the Harvard campus.

Built in 1766, Harvard Hall is a stately Georgian structure that sits on a base of brownstone. I distinctly remember walking up to the building to look at the stone, which had succumbed to weathering. Making sure that no one was looking, I stroked the crumbling rock. Sand grains accumulated in my hand. They immediately transported me back to my beloved Utah.

Another use of brownstone, which shows how it can erode over time.

Although I had looked at brownstones for months it wasn’t until the sand grains of Harvard Hall nestled in my hand that I made the connection: what I had known as red rock in Utah, easterners called brownstone. Both are sandstone colored by iron, which in an oxygen-rich environment rusts and coats individual sand grains like the skin of an apple.

Used extensively in rowhouses in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, brownstone made these buildings elegant, yet simple, and with an air of permanence. They exemplify the density of urban life. Famous brownstone denizens have included Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie, and Holly Golightly, from Breakfast at Tiffany's, as well as real people such as Edith Wharton and Edger Allen Poe.

Quarries near Portland, Connecticut, are the birthplace for brownstone. The stone’s popularity grew throughout the middle 1800s and peaked in the early 1890s though not everyone appreciated the somber colored stone. Edith Wharton referred to its popularity as a "universal chocolate-coloured coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried."

By the late 1890s, the clamor for brownstone was over, driven primarily by a fatal problem; water and salt could penetrate its layers. When water freezes it expands nine percent. Salt has a similar property but instead of expanding it grows. Both processes can wreak havoc on a building block.

The former Portland, CT quarries, now flooded.

Quarrying for brownstone ended in the 1920s. In 1993, however, an ex-coal miner named Mike Meehan opened a small quarry on a ledge north of the original quarries. He knew nothing about quarrying brownstone. “Being a coal miner, I was more adept at blowing things up,” says Meehan. “But at the end of the day, I knew I wanted to be small scale and to be making a product.”

Meehan’s first contract was for a restoration project at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Institutions have continued to order his stone, which he has sent to Brown University, Yale, and Pratt Institute. In recent years, after acquiring his own milling saw, he has been providing detail pieces, such as steps and lintels, for more and more high end homes, including one in Brooklyn, which I visited.

Meehan's restoration in Brooklyn

Meehan cut the new blocks to emphasize the bedding planes of the Portland rock. Each block is different with a variation in grain size, color, and bed thickness. They have a warmth and substantial nature to them, unlike the adjacent restorations, which obtain their look with stucco.

As I sat across the street from Meehan’s brownstones, I was reminded of a comment he made at the quarry. “One hundred years from now when people see these buildings they will say ‘That’s a glorious building.’ That’s a good thing to me.”

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Giro and The San Pietrini

Wow! Yesterday was a stunning end to the Giro d’Italia, one of the world’s great bicycle races. And the excitement occurred because of stone, the legendary San Pietrini cobbles of Rome. With just under 1000 meters to go in the time trial, race leader Denis Menchov looked like he was ready to win not only the overall race title but also that day’s race, the last leg of the Giro.

But then Menchov’s front wheel slipped out from under him and he went tumbling at probably 50 km/hour. The thin tire couldn’t grip the hard lava stones, which come from outcrops near Rome. These are the stones I wrote about in a previous post that Vitruvius described as hard and enduring. Many reporters described them as icy smooth because of the rain. Locals call the cobbles, “San Pietrini,” little Saint Peters, playing on St. Peter’s role as the rock of Christianity.

I have an update to add on this blog. Marie Jackson, who has written extensively about the stones of Rome, has told me that the San Pietrini stone comes from the Capo di Bove lava flow, 277,000 +/- 2,000 years old. The lava erupted from the Faete peak of the Alban Hills volcano, southeast of Rome. Stone comes from a quarry near the Ciampino airport.

(Photo of the cobbles from VeloNews.
To see a video of the fall, you can watch this
YouTube link.)

As Menchov fell, you could see him reaching out for his bike as he slid 10 meters along the San Pietrinis. Fortunately, his mechanic was in a car right behind him, and he leapt out of the car, yanked a spare bike off the top, sprinted to Menchov, and had him back riding within seconds. It was stirring and stunning to watch Menchov recover and ride to victory. Although it was exciting to see such a focus on building stone, I am glad they were not culprit that took away a well deserved victory by Dennis Menchov.