Our Nation’s Building Stones

So you’re heading out to Washington D.C. to attend the inauguration and wondering what to do in the down time between the Bruce Springsteen concert, primping for the Inaugural Ball, and chatting up your local congressional representative on the importance of  a good geology education.  Well, like that self-professed geogeek, Mr. Obama, (okay I think he just called himself a geek but I am guessing that he secretly likes rocks), one thing to do is to explore our nation’s capital and check out the building stone.  

In a city of stately buildings, stone has long been the premium material.  One of the first was quarried about 40 miles south of Washington along Aquia Creek in Stafford County, Virginia.  Popular between 1790 and 1840, the Lower Cretaceous sandstone is rich in quartz sand and pebbles.  It was also known as ‘Virginia freestone,’ and was used for the White House, Treasury Building, the Old Patent Office, and the older parts of the Capitol.  Unfortunately, the Aquia Creek rock suffered from many flaws and weathered poorly, so that it soon had to be replaced or painted over.  

Gateposts (From USGS Pub. Building Stones of Our Nation’s Capital

You can still find it indoors at the Old Patent Office and in rooms next to the Capitol rotunda.  Outdoor examples include the Old Patent Office, the boundary stones of D.C., and three gateposts and one gatehouse, formerly at the Capitol.  They can now be found at 15th St. NW and Constitution Ave. NW. 

The most popular building material, and one that has weathered far better, is the Salem Limestone.  As I have noted before, it is a 330-million-year old rock quarried in and around Bloomington, Indiana.  You cannot travel very far in Washington without running into a building made either all or partly of Salem.  These include the Botanic Gardens, the GSA Building, US Holocaust Museum, Interior, Jefferson Memorial (calcite from the Salem and marble have weathered and made stalactites and stalagmites in the basement), Lincoln Memorial, National Theater, and scores of more.  

Department of Interior (From USGS Pub. Building Stones of Our Nation’s Capital

You can also find a brownstone, from quarries located along the Potomac River, near Seneca, Maryland, 20 miles northwest of Washington.  Like the brownstones of Connecticut, the Seneca sandstone formed in massive rift basins that opened 200 million years ago during the breakup of Pangaea.  The Smithsonian Castle completed in 1855, uses this brownstone, which has weathered to dark red from its original lilac gray.  I recently learned from Through the Sandglass of a great Mark Twain quote about said stone.  In a letter published in the March 7, 1868 Territorial Enterprise, he wrote of the “poor, decrepit, bald-headed, played-out, antediluvian Old Red Sandstone formation which they call the Smithsonian Institute.” 

Smithsonian Castle (From USGS Pub. Building Stones of Our Nation’s Capital

I will end my short tour with the Washington Monument, the tallest masonry structure in the world.  The lower 152 feet use Texas marble, quarried in Maryland.  Construction on this section ran from 1845 to 1854.  Not until 11 years after the Civil War did building again begin again, now with marble from Lee, Massachusetts.  Only four layers were laid; this marble was too expensive.  Builders returned again to Maryland quarries but this time they got stone from Cockeysville, north of Baltimore. 

If you want to see more or learn more about stone of Washington, D.C., you can consult two excellent publications.  The USGS has put their Building Stones of Our Nation’s Capital on line. 

The second is the Building Stones and Geomorphology of Washington, D.C., written by Jim O’Connor, the late geologist for the District of Columia.  Enthusiastic about making geology accessible to everyone, he wrote and taught extensively about the local geology of the capitol. 

Building Stone Books

I am not alone in my passion for building stone. Today, I wanted to explore a few of the other books about building stone. This is not close to a complete list but some that I have referred to over the years. And it does not include any material on Washington, D.C., which I will write about later this week for those of you headed to the inauguration on January 20.

The list is in no particular order. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

A Geologic Walking Tour of Building Stones of Downtown Baltimore – Available both on line and as downloadable PDF file.

Stone Landmarks: Flagstaff’s Geology and Historic Building Stones by Marie D. Jackson – A beautifully designed, well-written tour of Flagstaff.  Includes a walking tour and wider explorations of the area. You can download an order form at the link.

In Limestone Country by Scott Russell Sanders – A literary exploration of the men and geology of the building stone region around Bloomington, Indiana.  Sanders’ writing is clear, passionate, and compelling.

Albuquerque downtown from a geologic point of view – I mentioned this book in November but felt it needed to be in this list.

Guide to Stones Used for Houses of Worship in Northeastern Ohio Cleveland Ohio, by Joseph Hannibal, Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Published by the Sacred Landmarks Partnership of Northeast Ohio.  Dr. Hannibal has done extensive research on the building stones around Cleveland and provides geologic and cultural information on the many churches of the northeastern Ohio.

Building stones of Pennsylvania’s capital area  by Alan Geyer – This doesn’t seem to be in print any more but is availabe through libraries.  It is publication EG5 in the Pennysylvania Geological Survey’s Environmental Geology series.

Geology along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue – A nice walking tour in Chicago with good photos and information. Particularly note the section of the Chicago Tribune Tower with its wonderful carvings of Salem Limestone.

A gallery of architectural geology – Oriented toward Chicago but also with photos of a few buildings outside of the Windy City.

Dimension Stone in Victoria, B.C. – Described as a city guide and walking tour of this wonderful little city in Canada. Available as a 12mb PDF.

Building Stone and Historic Structures in Downtown, Toronto – Written by C.R. Fouts, E.B. Freeman, K.M. Kemp, C. Marmont, and D.G. Minnes – A field trip guide prepared for a 1991 meeting in Toronto.

The Stones of Rome – Next time you venture to Rome, check out this page, full of much information.