Built in 1766, Harvard Hall is a stately Georgian structure that sits on a base of brownstone. I distinctly remember walking up to the building to look at the stone, which had succumbed to weathering. Making sure that no one was looking, I stroked the crumbling rock. Sand grains accumulated in my hand. They immediately transported me back to my beloved Utah.
Another use of brownstone, which shows how it can erode over time.
Although I had looked at brownstones for months it wasn’t until the sand grains of Harvard Hall nestled in my hand that I made the connection: what I had known as red rock in Utah, easterners called brownstone. Both are sandstone colored by iron, which in an oxygen-rich environment rusts and coats individual sand grains like the skin of an apple.
Quarries near Portland, Connecticut, are the birthplace for brownstone. The stone’s popularity grew throughout the middle 1800s and peaked in the early 1890s though not everyone appreciated the somber colored stone. Edith Wharton referred to its popularity as a “universal chocolate-coloured coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried.”
By the late 1890s, the clamor for brownstone was over, driven primarily by a fatal problem; water and salt could penetrate its layers. When water freezes it expands nine percent. Salt has a similar property but instead of expanding it grows. Both processes can wreak havoc on a building block.
The former Portland, CT quarries, now flooded.
Quarrying for brownstone ended in the 1920s. In 1993, however, an ex-coal miner named Mike Meehan opened a small quarry on a ledge north of the original quarries. He knew nothing about quarrying brownstone. “Being a coal miner, I was more adept at blowing things up,” says Meehan. “But at the end of the day, I knew I wanted to be small scale and to be making a product.”
Meehan’s first contract was for a restoration project at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Institutions have continued to order his stone, which he has sent to Brown University, Yale, and Pratt Institute. In recent years, after acquiring his own milling saw, he has been providing detail pieces, such as steps and lintels, for more and more high end homes, including one in Brooklyn, which I visited.
Meehan’s restoration in Brooklyn
Meehan cut the new blocks to emphasize the bedding planes of the Portland rock. Each block is different with a variation in grain size, color, and bed thickness. They have a warmth and substantial nature to them, unlike the adjacent restorations, which obtain their look with stucco.
As I sat across the street from Meehan’s brownstones, I was reminded of a comment he made at the quarry. “One hundred years from now when people see these buildings they will say ‘That’s a glorious building.’ That’s a good thing to me.”