The Tweed Courthouse Stone

It is always fun to come across a bit of corruption and shenanigans in the stone trade. Today, I want to focus on what was one of the most famous building stones of New York City, Tuckahoe Marble. First quarried around 1820, the Tuckahoe outcrops in northern Manhattan, the Bronx, and Westchester County, home of the quarries. The dolomitic marble comes from the Inwood Marble, a 450-million-year-old stone that metamorphosed during the formation of the Appalachians.

U.S. Assay Office NYC, formerly New Branch of the Bank of U.S. (found on this web site)

One of the earliest uses for Tuckahoe was in the New York branch of the Bank of the United States. Designed by Martin E. Thompson, the building became the US Assay Office in 1853 and in the early 1900s was the oldest federal structure in NYC. Such fame, however, didn’t save it from destruction in 1915. Curiously, the Tuckahoe façade was re-erected in Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Tuckahoe also achieved great fame in 1846 when Alexander T. Stewart, who would become one of New York’s wealthiest men, opened the city’s first large department store. Designed by the wonderfully named firm of Trench and Snook, the massive store was faced in Tuckahoe marble and quickly earned the moniker the “Marble Palace.”

Stewart also built a huge mansion with the marble, which unfortunately did not benefit the owner of the Tuckahoe quarry. According to the February 25, 1899 American Architect and Building News: “Mr. Stewart made a contract with the owner of the quarry, fixing a heavy penalty, amounting, practically, to the forfeiture of the quarry itself, for delay in delivery, beyond a specified time, of the marble. The delivery was delayed beyond the time, and Mr. Stewart determined to enforce the forfeiture. According to the story which was current in our younger days, the owner of the quarry went to Mr. Stewart to plead for mercy, but found him obdurate, and, overcome by grief and excitement, fell dead before him.”

Now to the corruption. Our story begins in 1861 with the construction of the county courthouse in New York City. The original budget was $250,000. As happens in many good civic projects, the builders decided to work with local stone, in this case the Tuckahoe marble. But this was the era of William “Boss” Tweed, a man who took corruption, bribery, and payouts to new heights. As he gathered more and more control over New York, Tweed made the County Courthouse into a money mill for himself and his cronies. For example, carpenter George S. Miller received $360,751 for one month of work; “Prince of Plasterers” Andrew Garvey got $2,870,464.06 for his efforts; and one company owned by Tweed charged $170,727 for chairs, all 40 of them.

In 1864, Tweed and pals purchased a marble quarry in Sheffield, Massachusetts for $3,080. Initially, the country ordered $1,200 worth of stone, which by 1867 had somehow morphed to costing $120,000. Over the years of construction, the county shelled out at least $420,000 for new, uncut marble for the courthouse. The courthouse was eventually completed in 1881, at a total cost of $12 million.

Over a century later, a decision was made to restore the courthouse. The initial study found that about 8 to 10 percent of the stone needed to be replaced. Most of the stone for restoration came from Georgia but workers also located 125 marble blocks in the Sheffield quarries. They had been slated for use in the Washington Monument (only four rows of Sheffield are in the obelisk, sandwiched between Texas and Cockeysville marbles) but after Tweed was convicted of wrong doing, no one wanted the stone. Now they are back in New York, apparently at true market cost.

Texas Marble…From Maryland

Someone stole my story. Well, not really. It’s mostly a wee fit of jealously at Brian Fisher Johnson, who has a first rate article on building stone in the January issue of Earth magazine. Stretching from Ballykilchine, Ireland, to the Washington Monument, the story tells of the marble quarries and quarrymen in Texas, Maryland, and their contribution to leaving “a very material impression on the face of America.”

Brian’s story focuses on an archaeological dig run by Stephen Brighton of the University of Maryland, College Park. Brighton has been studying the Irish immigrants who left Ballykilchine and traveled to a small settlement a bit north of Baltimore. By around 1860, Texas—so named for a volunteer regiment, the Texas Greens, established for the Mexican-American War—had 600 people. Brighton says that the Irish came for the calcite, in the form of marble for quarrying and limestone for burning.

Little remains from the heyday of the Irish in Texas. Little is also available in the history books, which is what led Brighton to investigate. “It’s a huge gap…in understanding the Irish diaspora,” he says. What he has been able to piece together is unusual. The Irish stayed in Texas for generations, in contrast to the more typical dispersal out from the original center.

Brighton and his students began their dig in July 2009. Their major find was a outhouse, as well as coins, a lice comb, and numerous pieces of glass. He and his students will continue to study their artifacts in order to better understand this unusual group of immigrants.

Brian reports that the value of Texas stone was reported as early as 1811. Quarrying began in 1834 with 13 quarries opened up by 1847. Geologists call the stone the “Cockeysville Marble,” for a nearby town. First deposited 500 million years ago as limestone, the white stone turned to marble around 240 million years ago during the assembly of Pangaea.

Library of Congress description “Washington Monument as it stood for 25 year,” photographed by Mathew Brady circa 1860

The color and location of the marble led it to be the first building stone of any large amount sent by rail to Washington D.C. In 1845, builders began to use the marble from Texas in the Washington Monument. They had put up 152 feet by 1854, when money ran out. Work began again in 1879, with marble from Lee, Massachusetts, but it was too costly, so the rest of the monument was finished with marble from Cockeysville, which accounts for the color change in the big edifice.

Texas marble also went into the “porticoes of the House and Senate wings of the U.S. Capitol building and the towers of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City,” writes Brian. He has written a nifty story about stone once again revealing the connection between people, geology, and history.