The Politics of Building Stone: Seattle

Twenty years ago today a building stone brouhaha erupted in Seattle.  On that snowy Friday, local newspapers reported that Metro, which managed King County’s sewage treatment and public transportation, would have to pay for, but not use, a half million dollars worth of granite that it had purchased for a new bus tunnel through downtown Seattle.  The reason for the rejection was that King County (Seattle is the county seat) had a policy that it could not use or purchase any goods “manufactured or fabricated” in South Africa because of apartheid.

The conflagration began when Eddie Rye of the Black Contractors Coalition notified Metro about its planned use of a green granite quarried in South Africa.  At the time, the stone, known in the trade as Verde Fontaine, sat in Italy, where it had been shipped for cutting and polishing.  Metro Council executive Alan Gibbs responded that using the stone would be “an affront to the community.”  Officials added that Rye’s notification was the first time Metro had heard of the granite’s origin and that none of the South African had been shipped to Seattle.  Turns out that neither statement was true and that a second South African granite had also been purchased. 

 Travertine and Verde Fontaine

Quarried near Bitterfontein, about 200 miles north of Cape Town, the pine green Verde Fontaine solidified underground over one billion years ago.  The green coloration comes from the mineral chlorite, which forms from the alteration of iron- and magnesium-rich minerals within the rock.  The granite is part of a suite known as Spektakel and were emplaced into supracrustal rock units (metasedimentary and metavolcanic rocks) that most likely exceed two billion years in age. 

After Rye blew the whistle, officials within Metro described how some had known about the origin of the stone but that they thought that so little was to be used that it wouldn’t be a problem.  They also noted that use of the rock technically wasn’t illegal because it was only quarried in South Africa but cut and finished in Italy. King County Council Chairman Ron Sims, a member of the Metro Council, responded ”It was a morally repugnant decision. Somebody should have to account for that. This was no longer a half-million-dollar ‘error.’ It was a conscious decision to defy public sentiment.” 

Accusations continued over the next month ultimately leading to the resignation of Alan Gibbs in late February. ”The buck stops with me,” Gibbs said at a news conference where he read a formal letter of resignation. ”The events of the last few weeks surrounding the issue of South African granite have been an embarrassment to the agency … This episode needs to be put to rest so the agency can move ahead with the important work before us.”  Two weeks after Gibbs’ resignation, an internal review of Metro concluded that Gibbs had not misled the public.  On September 15, 1990, the bus tunnels under Seattle opened, with walls covered in less polemical rock.

3 thoughts on “The Politics of Building Stone: Seattle”

  1. Tony,
    Yeah, I have often wondered where that stone went. The picture on my post is from another building in Seattle that has the Verde Fontaine though I haven’t checked to see the origin of that stone.

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