Authors: David B. Williams
STORIES IN STONE
By the Same Author
The Seattle Street-Smart Naturalist
A Naturalist’s Guide to Canyon Country
Travels Through Urban Geology
Copyright © 2009 by David B.
All rights reserved.
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA.
Williams, David B.
Stories in stone : travels through urban geology / David B.Williams.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Urban geology—United States.
“To the Rock that will be a Cornerstone of the House” from
The Collected Poetry
of Robinson Jeffers: Volume One, 1920–1928
, edited by Tim Huntby.
Copyright 1938, renewed 1966 by Donnan and Garth Jeffers.
All rights reserved.
Used with the permission of
Stanford University Press,
All photographs by David B.
Williams except the following: photograph by David B.Williams, used by permission of the Amherst
College Museum of Natural History/The Trustees of Amherst College.
Photographs by Adam Shyevitch.
Photograph courtesy of the
Thomas Crane Library, Quincy, Massachusetts, Parker Collection.
Photograph by Horace Lyon, used courtesy of Archival Collection,
Tor House Foundation.
Photograph by John Cipriani, used by permission of National Park Service.
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Most people do not think about geology when they are walking on the sidewalks of a major city.
But wherever I am in the world,
whether strolling through downtown Boston or hiking in the North Cascades, rocks are the first thing I see.
I can’t walk by
a beautiful stone building, or even an ugly one, without touching it and trying to figure out where the stones came from.
I go to cemeteries because of the unusual rocks used as grave markers.
When I travel I bring back rocks for souvenirs, and
I ask friends to pick up rocks from their exotic vacations.
When I watch movies, my eyes wander to the buildings in the background
to see what stone I can identify.
My passion for rocks began when I majored in geology in college.
I had originally planned to go into engineering, but when
I took physics and got 16 percent on a quiz I turned to a subject I had excelled at: field trips.
I loved being outside learning
about the planet and its history.
After college, I moved to southern Utah.
My passion for stone grew as I hiked, biked, and
explored the red rock landscape around Moab, a geologic paradise.
When my wife, Marjorie, decided to pursue her master’s degree, we moved to Boston.
I hated the first few months.
Where I had
once traipsed through quiet sandstone canyons, surrounded by thousand-foot-tall cliffs of rock, I now walked through shadowy
canyons created by buildings.
Where I once hiked on desolate trails, I now crossed busy streets.
For the first time in many
years I felt disconnected from the natural world.
And then I noticed Boston’s buildings.
Half-billion-year-old slates abutted 150,000-year-old travertines.
Sandstone that formed
in Connecticut sat on top of marble that formed in Italy.
Metamorphic rocks interfingered with igneous rocks.
sea-deposited limestones juxtaposed mineral-rich, subduction-created granites.
Plus, builders had gone to the effort of cleaning
and polishing these fine geologic specimens, making their stories that much easier to read.
As I began to notice the stone
in buildings, I found the geologic stories that could provide the connection to wildness I had lost.
Now when I need a rock fix, I simply go downtown and wander the business district and look at building stones.
I see evidence
of continents splitting apart, crashing into each other, and diving deep into the planet; of rivers washing into dinosaur-rich
valleys, seas teeming with invertebrates, and hot springs bubbling with bacterial stews; of magma baking limestone into marble,
granite carried thousands of miles by plate tectonic movement, and massive trees fossilizing into stunning pieces of petrified
Geology is half the story; building stones also provide the foundation for constructing stories about cultural history.
used at the Bunker Hill Monument led to the construction of America’s first railroad.
In the brownstones of New York and Boston,
the whims of fashion combined with the realities of weathering and erosion to dictate over three hundred years of architectural
And in the cottage and tower poet Robinson Jeffers built for his wife and family, you can see how his years of intimate
work with stone grounded Jeffers and helped make him one of the most popular American poets of the early twentieth century.
Whether it is a lone iconoclast building his home with rocks he found on a beach or a multinational conglomerate importing
millions of tons of marble, we employ building stone to convey sentiments as mundane or grand as we desire them to be.
use of stone reflects the long relationship between people and nature—on levels scientific, emotional, and philosophical.
It is a relationship that continues to evolve and to inform our actions.
Stories in Stone
offers readers a new window through which to look at urban landscapes.
Intriguing cultural and natural history stories are
no farther than the nearest building.
Building stone did not change the world.
And it will outlast us all.
In some thirty years every noble cliff will be a pier, and the
whole island will be densely desecrated by buildings of brick,
with portentous facades of brown-stone, or brown-stonn,
as the Gothamites have it.
—Edgar Allan Poe,
Doings of Gotham, May 14, 1844
Little I ask; my wants are few;
I only wish a hut of stone,
(A very plain brown stone will do,)
That I may call my own;—
And close at hand is such a one,
In yonder street that fronts the sun.
—Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Contentment,” 1858
the late 1800s was the land where the streets were paved with gold, in Brooklyn and Manhattan the streets were
lined with chocolate: chocolate stores, churches, and mansions.
But above all, row houses, better known as brownstones.
stretched for block upon block, mile after mile, wearying the eye, as one detractor sneered.
In 1880 78 percent of the stone structures in Manhattan had a front of brownstone; in Brooklyn, 96 percent.
the poor, the growing middle class, and the titans of the Gilded Age, such as William Astor II, J.
Morgan, and Jay Gould.
The brown sandstone (hence brown-stone and later brownstone) that faced most of the row houses gave the architecture its name.
The stone served no structural purpose; it was the aluminum siding of the day, a four-inch-thick curtain, attached by mortar
to the brick load-bearing walls that supported the wood-frame building.
Originally a substitute for more expensive marble
and first used for decorative work such as lintels, steps, and quoins, brownstone became the most popular building stone in
New York by the 1850s and so synonymous with row houses that any row house, whether clad in brick, limestone, or marble, was
called a brownstone.
Typically built on a one-hundred-foot-deep lot, brownstone row houses ranged from twelve to twenty-five feet wide and were
three to six stories high.
A below-grade servants’ entrance led to the basement, where the domestics cooked and the family
Homeowners, or in many cases tenants, entered via a steeply staired stoop, an architectural feature brought by the original
Dutch settlers who had required a rise to get above their flat homeland’s perennial flooding.
In America the stoop, née
, helped people rise above street odors generated by the horse-powered transport system.
Later the stoop became a favored
place for sitting, hanging out, gossiping, and that venerable Brooklyn pastime, stoopball.
The stoop led to the building’s formal entrance, often the finest architectural feature of a brownstone.
Many entrances had
arched openings, a prominent keystone, and an elaborate fanlight.
Others were squared off with a detailed console or hood
Columns bracketed many doorways and could be Ionic, Doric, Corinthian, or strange combinations thereof.
double doors opened into a vestibule or long hallway and led to the first-floor parlor.
Oddly, the parlor may have been the
least-used part of the home.
Society dictated an entertainment space, but most middle-class people rarely used it.
and sitting rooms were on the upper floors.
Servants lived in the garret.
A cornice, often of iron pounded, sanded, and painted
to resemble stone, topped the structure.
Long and narrow, particularly in later years when land prices forced developers to squeeze houses to nearly claustrophobic
widths, brownstones would not win a modern-day design competition.
Windows illuminated only the front and back rooms; middle
rooms were gloomy caverns.
Long flights of steep, poorly lit stairs connected the floors, providing a practical way to meet
one’s daily exercise needs, although one nineteenth-century critic wrote that this progenitor of the Stairmaster led to “fruitless
and health-destroying labor.”
And yet, to have a brownstone-fronted home was to live the good life in Manhattan and Brooklyn, as well as Boston, Hartford,
Whether rich or poor, immigrant or Knickerbocker, every level of society aspired to live in a brownstone,
called by one writer an “almost proverbial synonym for all that is elegant and desirable.”
So elegant and desirable was brownstone that the world’s richest man, William H.
Vanderbilt, who inherited ninety million
dollars in 1877, disregarded his architects’ preferred construction material, white limestone, and built between 1879 and
1882 a pair of brownstone mansions on Fifth Avenue.
Designed by the firm Trench and Snook, the twin estates cost two million
dollars and reportedly required an around-the-clock crew of six hundred to seven hundred workers to build.
Despite Vanderbilt’s multimillion-dollar stamp of approval, brownstone did not fare well with critics.
They thought the stone
cold and unattractive.
Brownstone was only a veneer, they sneered, a pretense.
Plus, it didn’t carve well, didn’t age well,
and made buildings look bloated.
In the words of Edith Wharton, the city was “cursed with its universal chocolatecoloured
coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried.”
The critics were partially correct.
Water and ice can penetrate and weaken the stone’s sandy layers, which peel off the building
like sunburned skin.
But the stone does not deserve all of the blame: Brownstone failed because builders used poor quality
stone or laid it incorrectly.
Properly placed brownstone blocks in 150-year-old buildings show little or no degradation.
Its reputation weakened by the critics’ complaints, brownstone suffered a decisive blow to its popularity at the Chicago World’s
Fair of 1893, commonly called the White City.
Daniel Burnham’s array of snow white, classical buildings returned marble and
limestone to their former place of supremacy in the building world.
White was in and brown was out.
Brownstone would not become
popular again for another hundred years.
I first fell in love with brownstone in 1996.
Marjorie and I had recently moved to Boston so she could attend graduate school.
During my regular walks to get away from our dreary apartment, I wandered among town houses made of brownstone in the Brahmin
bastion of Beacon Hill.
The brownstones were distinctive, exhibiting warmth and character.
I liked that I could see geologic
features such as bedding and erosion, and during those occasional sunsets when the light bounced off low clouds, the stones
seemed to be lit from within.
Several months after moving to Boston, I chanced upon what would become one of my favorite brownstone buildings.
1766, Harvard Hall sits on the western edge of the Harvard campus.
It is a stately Georgian structure with simple lines, arched
windows, and a two-story portico.
Although primarily brick, Harvard Hall sits on a base of brownstone, with brownstone stairs
that gently rise on either side of the main door.
I distinctly remember walking up to the stairs to look at the stone work, which had been laid incorrectly and had begun to
succumb to weathering.
Making sure that no one was looking, I stroked the crumbling stone.
Sand grains accumulated in my hand.
They immediately transported me back to my beloved Utah.
Although I had looked at brownstones for months, it wasn’t until the sand grains of Harvard Hall nested 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.
I learned later that my favorite Utah rock layer, the Wingate Sandstone, and Harvard Hall’s brownstone were deposited at
the same time, during the waning days of Pangaea, and that both contain dinosaur tracks, possibly from the same species.
finally felt like I was making a connection to Boston.
A decade later I headed to the heart of brownstone country, New York City.
Specifically, I went to Brooklyn, because many
of the brownstone row houses and most of the great brownstone mansions in Manhattan were gone.
Some neighborhoods, such as
Greenwich Village, the Upper West Side, and Harlem, still have chocolate row houses, but these isolated pockets cannot compare
with the street upon street of brownstone-fronted buildings found throughout Brooklyn.
I stayed in a Brooklyn brownstone with a childhood pal and her family.
It was a classic five-story row house, with one apartment
on each floor.
My friends lived on the top floor, so I got to experience the fruitless and health-destroying labor of stair
The morning of my first day in Brooklyn, my friend Megan and I strolled through the Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, and Brooklyn
Walking through canyon after canyon of sandstone felt like returning to Utah, except I saw a lot more
people and I could buy good pizza.
Some buildings had smooth, precisely cut rock; others had rusticated blocks; and a few
had stippled stones.
Moss and lichen covered many of the low walls that fronted patio spaces next to stoops.
A few walls had
a black patina similar to the desert varnish that coats Utah’s cliffs.
A fractured brownstone pile next to a stoop vividly reminded me of a cliff of rock slowly decaying and crumbling.
one piece and put it in my backpack.
I took dozens of photos of buildings where wind and water had smoothed elaborate window
and door details to shapeless blobs.
On one building, erosion had so weakened the rock that the front door console had fallen
off, revealing the brick and wood structure underneath.
Across the street from Fort Greene Park, on South Portland Avenue, was a classic stretch of row houses, their repetitious
and receding lines of stoop, doorway, and window looking like an art student’s first attempt at perspective drawing.
the uniformity of the buildings, they formed a balanced and elegant beauty, further enhanced by the block’s tall London plane
trees and bluestone sidewalks.
One of the chief complaints of nineteenth-century detractors was the tedium of brownstones.
Junius Henri Browne, a critic
wearied by brownstone, wrote in 1869, “One longs [for] .
some change in the style and aspects of the sombre-seeming houses,
whose occupants, one fancies from the exterior, look, think, dress and act alike.”
Perhaps in Browne’s day and in the subsequent decades, regularity doomed the buildings, but now this same consistency stands
out as a coveted feature.
Time Out New
recently named South Portland Avenue the best block in New York, citing its unbroken row of brownstone town houses.
South Portland was a wonderful block, but it also showcased a disturbing trend.
Many of the buildings no longer had brownstone
Instead, stucco covered them.
This process of putting stucco over stone began in the 1960s.
In neighborhoods where brownstones were run down and unsafe, a few pioneers recognized the beauty and history of the buildings,
which were cheap and available even if bankers wouldn’t extend credit.
Buyers had to move fast because city agencies had started
to demolish brownstones.
Ironically, demolition led to the open spaces now utilized as community gardens throughout Brooklyn.
When the new residents began to move into these neighborhoods, they began to repair and restore the buildings.
have the money they have now, so there was less attention to detail.
In many cases, owners simply removed or shaved off features,
in particular around windows,” said Alex Barrett, an architect who focuses on brownstone restoration in Brooklyn.
Where once a prominent sill and ornate molding and brackets surrounded a window with distinction, plain windows now punctuated
buildings with flaccid monotony.
Owners also lopped off stoops, abandoning the original entryways like forgotten lovers.