America’s Building Stone – Chapter 6

Go to any city across the country and you will find one building stone in all of them: Salem Limestone from Indiana. People pray, have babies, get drivers licenses, and file for divorce in structures made from this 330-million-year old buff rock. Salem was also the first stone that many people encountered when they entered the United States; the administration building at Ellis Island was completed in 1900 with Salem Limestone trimming the red brick.

As with most building stones, use of Salem started locally with workers hauling blocks eight miles for the foundation and window sills of a county courthouse in 1819. The first quarry opened eight years later but little stone made it outside Indiana until the railroad reached Bedford and Bloomington in 1853.

The big break for Salem quarriers came in 1871 when Chicago burned to the ground. Within a few years, Indiana quarrymen had set up shop to promote their stone. One promoter wrote, “This purity insures absolute integrity on exposures to the fumes of coal, while the perfect elasticity and flexibility of the mass render it invulnerable to the forces of cold and heat, air and moisture.” Others claimed that the stone cleaned itself and that it had withstood the ice age “scarcely changed in any part.”

The Salem soon became the stone of Chicago. In 1889 William Vanderbilt ordered 25 carloads for a mansion on Fifth Avenue and his august imprimatur spurred others to follow. Within a decade Salem dominated markets in Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Cedar Rapids.

Several aspects of Salem Limestone combined to make everyone from Odd Fellows to opera fans incorporate the stone in their structures. Stone masons can cut, plane, flute, and carve the Salem easily and in all directions and once shaped, Salem hardens over time. It splits evenly, and in any direction. When rock had to bear the weight of a building, Salem excelled because of its low compressibility. When stone became a skin hanging on a steel skeleton, Salem remained popular because of its ease in cutting.

Changes in architectural fashions also helped sell Salem Limestone. In the last quarter of the 19th century, architects turned away from the dark, somber stones, such as brownstone, that dominated cities in the eastern United States. Salem Limestone also benefited from the growth of coal-fired plants, because Salem stones did not disintegrate under attack by coal-generated pollution like other limestones. (As geologist David Dale Owen wrote in 1838, Salem Limestone “would imbibe less water.”) By 1928, the peak year of production, Indiana quarries provided 70% of all exterior building stone used in the United States.

Salem Limestone quarries are still active, shipping rock as far as Japan and Turkey. In the United States, Salem-clad buildings occur in all 50 states, and include 27 state capitols, 750 post offices, and 200-plus courthouses. It is the most commonly used building stone in the country.

The Unconformity at Yankee Stadium

Recently there has been much bother and brouhaha about the opening of the new stadium for the New York Yankees. The New Yorker’s fine architectural critic Paul Goldberger wrote that the building has “the self important air of a new courthouse built to look as if it had been there since William Howard Taft was President.” Perhaps of more importance, at least to some, Goldberger noted that the stadium “finally [has] sufficient bathroom facilities.” He discussed sight lines, historic homages, and luxury boxes, but what he failed to notice is the unconformity that greets all who enter.

Up close with the Yankees’ unconformity (from Wikipedia)

The base of the stadium is a gray, lightly lavender granite quarried from Crotch Island, Maine. Sitting atop it is the Salem Limestone, quarried in Bedford, Indiana, just around the corner from the hole that provided the stone for the Empire State Building. The missing time gap is about 40 million years, a relatively short span considering what could occur in architectural unconformities. (One of my favorites is the three-billion-year gap between the formation of the Morton Gneiss and the deposition of the Kasota Limestone, the two rocks abutting each other on the Art Deco Qwest Building on Minneapolis.)

Such geologic incongruities are common in architecture. Half-billion-year old slates butt against 150,000-year-old travertines. Sandstone that formed in Connecticut sits on top of marble that formed in Italy. Metamorphic rocks interfinger with sedimentary rocks. Fossil-rich, sea-deposited limestones juxtapose mineral-rich, subduction-created granites. The collection of building stones in any downtown area is as complex as any assembled by plate tectonics.

But back to the rock of Yankee stadium. Since the middle 1800s, Maine has been a major source of granite in the building industry. By 1889, Maine had 153 granite quarries, including one in Vinalhaven that employed 1,500 people. Quarries combined good, hard rock with easy transportation. Most of the important quarries were on the islands on the south central coast. Maine granite went into structures throughout the eastern seaboard, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the U.S. Treasury Building in Washington, D.C., and Boston’s Harvard Bridge. Now, however, only one island quarry remains, the one on Crotch Island, owned by the Deer Isle Granite Company. (If you want to own the same rock as the Yankees, they’ll be happy to sell you some.)

Deer Isle granite items for sale from Deer Isle Granite Company

The Deer Isle granite solidified about 371 million years ago, as part of an extensive array of granites that formed during two periods of extension associated with the Acadian Orogeny. The rock on Crotch Island sat at the top of the magma chamber. Unlike other granites within the Deer Isle complex, the Crotch Island has few enclaves and no hornblende. It is one of the lighter colored of Maine’s granites, as well, due mostly to buoyant silicic minerals getting concentrated near the roof of the chamber.

Forty million years after the formation of the Deer Isle rock, a quiet sea covered much of the central part of North America. The hundreds of feet of limestone that developed from the mid-continental sea have been exploited widely as quarries, none more famous than those in and around Bloomington and Bedford, Indiana. The Salem Limestone, often called the Indiana limestone, basically consists of the broken up shells of billions upon billions of marine invertebrates, primarily crinoids, forams, bryozoans, and brachiopods. As I have noted before, it is the most commonly used building stone in America.

Now, I have to admit I am not a Yankees fan. Nor, am I a fan of any baseball team but next time I am in New York, I think I would go out to the ballpark. I wouldn’t actually go to see a game, and if no one was there that would be even better, but I would like to see the unconformity.