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. 

The Comstock King and Brownstone

“San Francisco’s crown in the matter of private architecture has rested on the brow of the city’s famous Nob Hill for the past 10 years but the brightest jewel in the setting is receiving its finishing polish,” appeared on page 4 of the May 9, 1886 New York Times.  The short article was referring to the mansion of James C. Flood, best known as one of the Nevada Comstock Kings.  His home was reportedly the most expensive private residence in America.  The reason was understandable—Flood’s 42-room estate was made of sandstone shipped around Cape Horn from Connecticut.  Total cost was $1.5 million and included a $30,000 bronze fence, which was rumored to be polished by a man whose sole job was to do so. 

Flood chose the red sandstone, better known as brownstone, because it was the stone of the wealthy.  William Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan, and George Pullman all lived in brownstone homes, and brownstone was called an “almost proverbial synonym for all that is elegant and desirable.”  Tons and tons of brownstone was shipped as ballast around Cape Horn.  The 107 foot by 127 foot edifice featured 14 solid stone columns, 13 feet tall by 22 inches square, and 23-foot-long sandstone steps.  The biggest blocks each weighed 18 tons.

I have long wanted to see Mr. Flood’s brownstone.  Skipping out on a few sessions at AGU allowed me to reach this goal. The mansion is rather handsome and very out of place on its block surrounded by gargantuan and mostly granite buildings.  And it is clear that no one has polished the bronze fence in decades. 

The main brownstone quarries were in Portland, Connecticut.  First used for building in the 1650s, brownstone started to spread widely in the late 1700s and reached a peak by the last decade of the 19th century.  Following devastating floods, the quarries shut down around 1936, but not before the removal of 10 million cubic yards of rock. 

From a geologic point of view, brownstone has long attracted attention.  The red sands were part of an extensive series of sediments deposited in rift basins formed 200 million years ago by the separation of North America and Africa and the incipient opening of the Atlantic Ocean.  These sediments record more than 35 million years of time and stretch from South Carolina to Newfoundland.  The sediments also preserved the tracks of thousands of dinosaurs that roamed the wet sands near streams and lakes in the basins.  More than 20,000 of these tracks, including the legendary Noah’s Raven, are now displayed at the Amherst Museum of Natural History. 

James Flood’s residence was the lone mansion on Nob Hill to survive the 1906 earthquake.  It was, however, only a shell as fire had burned out the interior.  Flood had died in 1889 and his daughter sold the gutted building to the Pacific Union Club.  They hired the architectural firm run by Daniel Burnham to redesign the mansion.  Ironically, Burnham was the architect of the World’s Columbian Exposition and its White City, which contributed to white stone replacing brownstone as a favored building material.  The Flood residence is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Only members and their guests are allowed in the building now.