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Walls and Paths Built to Endure
Landscape Designers Return to the Natural Look of Stone
With its warmth, texture and sense of permanence, stone is once more the building material of choice in booming Washington. But as beneficiaries of this new Stone Age have learned, a stone house is best enjoyed from the garden. Add stone walls, steps, patios and paths in the yard, and you have created a rustic setting that is both elegant and at ease with the natural look of contemporary flower beds. David Modine, president of Jack T. Irwin Inc., a stone yard in Rockville, said customers are "leaning more toward natural stone instead of railroad ties" to form garden areas. And many buyers have developed a designer's eye for the most attractive stones, selecting the specific palette to be used for a project, he noted.
Brick looks universal, but stone is inherently regional for the most part. Except for such standouts as red Seneca sandstone and white Cockeysville marble, there was nothing flashy about the rock in local quarries two centuries ago: It was mostly in muted tones of brown, green and blue. Yet even modest structures built with this stone have retained a distinct elegance and blend in handsomely with regional flowers and trees.
The Seneca sandstone quarry, located near the C & O Canal in Montgomery County, supplied the fabric for many of the city's old brownstone mansions and row houses and, most famously, for the Smithsonian Castle on the Mall. The quarry is now closed, but other regional quarries are still very much alive.
"We have a lot of a stone, but we have trouble keeping up with local demand," said Sheila Kessinger, general manager of Stoneyhurst Quarries on River Road in Bethesda. Stoneyhurst, which traces its roots in Montgomery County to 1832, is also the popular (and trademarked) name used to describe the mica schist found at the quarry. Besides suburban homes and gardens, Stoneyhurst blocks in several color variations can be seen at such landmarks as St. Alban's School on the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral and paving the driveway at Dumbarton Oaks.
Strong sales prompted Irwin's--which sells a range of stone from different quarries--to open a second location, in Frederick, Md., last fall.
During Washington's suburban expansion in the 1950s and 1960s, brick and aluminum siding dominated the exterior of the split-level home that typified the era. Bethesda architect Mark Kramer attributes the current interest in stone to a more general passion for traditional design, inspired particularly by the stone houses built in wealthier suburbs in the early 20th century. "People are much more into trim and detail today. You have brick and stone put together the way it was in the '20s and '30s," he said. "Stone has a connotation of quality."
Local stone can mean more than just rock quarried in the Washington area. The mid-Atlantic region produces a number of popular stone types, including bluish-gray Pennsylvania flagstone, which is popular for walkways. Also favored are smooth, multicolored Delaware river rocks, used to create a garden border or the illusion of a dry stream bed. For a more dramatic effect, black granite is available from a quarry near Culpeper, Va.
Irwin's stocks some stone from far-flung U.S. locations, but it "gets prohibitive in cost" because of transportation charges, Modine said. Even Tennessee flagstone, a pink-, yellow- and tan-shaded stone that is very popular with D.C. area customers, can run almost twice as much per ton as Pennsylvania flagstone.
There are regional substitutes for the deep-red Seneca sandstone. One alternative, known as Emmitsburg Brown for the location of the quarry near Emmitsburg, Md., is offered at the Irwin yard. Modine notes that it may not be as hard as Seneca rock.
It's unusual to see a recently built home whose exterior is entirely stone. The main reason is cost. Stoneyhurst veneer, for example, has risen in price from $24 per ton in 1968 to $145 per ton.
Just using local stone for detail work on a facade is about twice as expensive as brick, architect Kramer said.
Stone is one of the few reusable construction materials, however, and that allows local landscape architects to create new structures in the countryside that harmonize well with rural landscapes and 19th-century buildings. That can make the cost more tolerable.
"We think our design is successful when no one notices it has been designed," said Barry Starke, a landscape architect and president of Earth Design Associates, of Casanova, Va. The company, he said, makes use of stone scavenged from farm fields or old, damaged walls. "Native fieldstone can be shaped by a good mason" to create unique, attractive patterns on a finished wall, he said.
Espina Stone Co., of Fairfax, used limestone from the ruins of a distillery to repair a bridge over Antietam Creek in central Maryland, said Bob Picardi, Espina's vice president.
While stone used in the Washington area is mostly local, the masons working it are mostly foreign-born, and always were. Originally from Scotland, Ireland, England and Germany, many masons today hail from Latin America or Spain and Portugal as well as other southern European countries. "They have wonderful skills in stone masonry and are reviving the craft," said Starke, who notes much of the area's stonework wouldn't be possible without the immigrants' low-cost labor.
Steve Dryden is a freelance writer.
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