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Rock On - Under Mason's Hand, Stone Turns Into Something Much More

By Terese Brumback
The Warren Sentinel

Jose Cerdeira is the third-generation Spanish stonemason leading a team in applying a natural stone facing to the Warren County Courthouse addition.

Jose Cerdeira got the first spark in his career when he was a young child, making pebble puzzles in the dirt in a small town in Spain.

Cerdeira, chief stone mason for the Warren County Courthouse renovation and expansion, said the pebble puzzles were a common game he played with other children, most of whom were also descendants of other stonemasons in the rocky village of Galicia.

At a tender age, it got them used to the rough and repetitive work of stone laying.

“We did puzzles in the dirt — with rocks,” Cerdeira said. “You open your mind.”

Cerdeira, 48, is a third-generation stonemason practicing a dying but revered art.

The four masons who are helping Cerdeira studied under him. They all hail from similarly rugged terrain, but in Mexico.

“I was born between the stones,” said Ricardo Gutierrez, who now lives in Elkton. “My father was a stonemason. He built houses and barns.”

In Cerdeira’s native village in Spain, stones are never taken for granted. They are the basic building material of almost every structure.

“All the fields and houses are stone,” he said, while tamping a gray stone into a western wall of the courthouse with the back of his fist. “Ninety percent of the people are stonemasons.”

And they’ll never take an iron farm gate—if they are ever lucky enough to get one—for granted.

Even around pastures in Galicia, pens are made by stacking readily available pink granite stones around the livestock. To drive in or out of these pens, or to move cattle from one field to the next, part of the wall must be removed, stone by stone. It’s been that way for centuries, Cerdeira said, laughing, and flashing a broad grin, as he picks up a triangular stone and eases it into a gap in the courthouse wall.

It fits like a glove. Cerdeira looks pleased.

It’s not a scientific art, though a ruler is sometimes used. “By the eye you can pick the stone you need,” Cerdeira said.

For the last two decades, Cerdeira has worked with rocks from the Shenandoah Valley and from the mountains to build fireplaces, homes, and even a wall at the White House, as well as guard rails on Skyline Drive.

“This stone looks beautiful. It’s really strong,” he said, surveying a pile of the rocks to go into the new courthouse walls. They range from six to 18 inches long, are about six inches thick, and weigh around five pounds. With a hammer and chisel, he cuts the rock to make it squarish.

“You have to know the seams of the stone. If you don’t cut it right it breaks in pieces.”

There is no preset design, but Cerdeira and his crew of four masons and two helpers mix and match the stone as they lay it, to vary the color and the size.

“You gotta know how to cut the stone and which way to cut the corner.”

Each stone is as individual as a human being.

“You got to know the stone,” he says firmly.

The masonry joints between the stones aren’t just icing on the cake; they contribute to the overall effect. The stone must be laid so the joints are of the same width.

After the stone is laid, a trowel is used to spread the mortar over the rock, so the next one will stick to it.

Hardest to do are the corners of a structure. The sides must be cut off so they are straight. To ensure they are straight, they measured against the building with a straight string.

The colors in the stone for the courthouse addition range from beige to gray, charcoal, purple, and rust. Over time, the colors will lighten a little bit, the stonemason said.

The stone comes from an ordinary field in Augusta County. It’s been there since the Ice Age, said construction manager Rex Willis.

Warren County officials looked at stone from three suppliers before they agreed on the Augusta County stone. The colors match as close as possible the colors of the stone in the original courthouse, which was built during the 1930s, Willis said.

The Cerdeira family is no stranger to the Shenandoah Valley.

While the Warren County Courthouse was opening in the 1930s, Cerdeira’s late grandfather, Manuel Cerdeira, was building the stonework along part of the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway, Jose said.

In 1983, Cerdeira was selected to upgrade some of the work his grandfather did.

“We took the old walls out, and put concrete in the middle. We made the walls stronger and higher.”

For Cerdeira, the work was personally rewarding. “It made me feel great especially when I worked where my grandfather was.”

Jose now runs a stonemasonry firm out of an office in Fairfax. He came to America when he was 21, a year after perfecting the trade from his father, who is also named Jose. To be a good stonemason takes 3 to 5 years of on-the-job training.

With his father he worked on Skyline Drive between Luray and Big Meadows. He and 50 other masons laid 31,000 linear feet of stone, Jose said. It took 12 years. Cerdeira’s work over 80 miles of Skyline Drive lasted through 1995.

Now he is at work on the courthouse addition, another stone project that will live as one of his legacies in the Valley.

The stonework project, involving roughly 7,000 square feet, was awarded to Cerdeira’s firm at around $140,000, he said.

The work began Sept. 1 and is expected to be finished by mid-December, he said.

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