Earlier this month I shared with you a review of Stories in Stone, a new book on urban geology by David Williams. It was a very enjoyable read, but I had a few questions about it. Fortunately David was glad to answer them, and you can see my interview with him below;
[Brian Switek] What got you interested in geology in the first place, and urban geology in particular? When did the idea for Stories in Stone first strike you?
[David Williams] An intro to physics class sparked my interest in geology. After getting a 16% on a three-hour quiz, I realized I wasn’t cut out for physics. Fortunately, I had taken an intro to geo course, which I liked, mostly because we spent time out in the field. I liked learning about the landscapes where I hiked, biked, and backpacked.
My interest in urban geology developed in downtown Seattle, when I saw the wonderful stone used in the underground stations built for the city’s bus system. I had long been interested in the connections between people and geology and realized that building stone was an ideal way to further explore this relationship. Stories in Stone grew out of series of magazine articles I wrote on the subject, the first of which appeared in the Harvard alumni magazine in 1997.
[Switek] I appreciated your inclusion of paleontology within the book, especially your discussion of the dinosaur tracks found in the Connecticut Valley. Can you tell us a little bit about how the use of the sandstone from this area led some naturalists to start studying the tracks? Are there any buildings or structures on which you can see some tracks?
[Williams] Starting in the mid-1600s, people began to quarry a rusty brown sandstone from around Portland, Connecticut. That rock later achieved notoriety as the brownstone that clad and still clads hundreds of buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Before it became famous, however, Amherst College professor Edward Hitchcock began to notice odd markings in quarried panels, which he realized were animal track preserved in stone. His favorite panel, a former section of sidewalk, shows mud tracks, worm tracings, and 54 beautifully preserved track casts from what Hitchcock always thought were birds; he could never admit that dinosaurs were responsible for the fossils.
Unfortunately, I do not know of any brownstone buildings where you can see dinosaur tracks. One geologist told me he had seen such tracks but couldn’t remember where. I also know of several geologists who have searched unsuccessfully for the tracks. Hitchcock, however, found and made a cast of tracks from a sidewalk on Greenwich Street in Manhattan. He later wrote that casting the Greenwich tracks almost landed him in the local asylum: a former student saved him when she testified that he was “no more deranged than such men usually are.”
[Switek] Are there any other places where fossil-bearing stone is regularly used for building purposes?
[Williams] Several stones come to mind. Salem Limestone, the most commonly used building stone in this country, is basically pure fossil, although most are broken bits. You can find bryozoans, crinoids, brachiopods, and the occasional coral. Vermont also produced a limestone filled with Ordovician age snails, rugose coral, and crinoids; it was sold as Radio Black and used in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In the past decade or so, a German, Jurassic-age limestone has begun to appear in this country. Deposited on a carbonate platform and known erroneously as Treuchtlingen Marble, it is filled with sponges, belemnites, brachiopods, and ammonites, some up to ten inches across. (To find that fossil go to the north side of Hauser Hall, on the Harvard campus, and look up about ten feet.)
[Switek] You also cover some really neat buildings that are at least partially made out of fossils, like the famous Bone Cabin in Wyoming and William Brown’s gas station (constructed with petrified wood) in Lamar, Colorado. Are there other similarly-constructed “fossil” buildings out there?
[Williams] I know of two other buildings made of petrified wood. Down in Decatur, Texas, the Texas Tourist Court, which opened in 1927, features a gas station covered in petrified wood, collected nearby in the towns of Alvord and Bridgeport. In South Dakota, Ole Quammen built yet another gas station of petrified wood in the 1930s. According to the nomination for National Register of Historic Places, Quammen eventually acquired 8,200,000 pounds of petrified wood and 600,000 pounds of petrified grass (I am not sure what this means but I envision a precursor of Astroturf), which he assembled into his gas station (now the town Chamber of Commerce), dozens of conical towers, a castle with spires, and various oddly-shaped mounds. Still standing, Quammen’s petrified kitsch is now owned by the city of Lemmon, which continues the great tradition of promoting stone-themed curiosities by proclaiming theirs as the “World’s Largest Petrified Wood Park.”
[Switek] Many towns take pride in having rich fossil deposits and adorn their streets and buildings with dinosaurs. What is your pick for the best dinosaur-decked town to visit?
[Williams] Excellent question. Like many geologists, I have long been a fan of the modern dinosaurs that stalk our country. It’s hard to beat the menagerie that hang out at the rock shops in and near Holbrook, Arizona. In town is the Rainbow Rock Shop, with its bevy of colorful Apatosaurs, stegosaurs, and what I hesitate to call a T. rex; the latter is sitting up like a prairie dog. Outside of town, Stewart’s Rock Shop is well-known for its pear shaped “T. rex,” which is chomping on a red headed woman. There is also a large, green beast, which sort of resembles a Paraceratherium; to make it a bit more exciting Santa Claus is astride its neck. As you can tell, I lean a bit toward tacky in my choice of dinosaurs.
[Switek] I noticed that much of the book focuses on structures in North America and western Europe. Is this because of travel constraints? Were there places or buildings elsewhere in the world, in Asia or South America perhaps, you wanted to talk about in the book?
[Williams] My plan was always to focus on stone in the United States as I wanted to write a book that would allow people to access easily the stone I discusses. Obviously several of the stones have limited distribution but more than half appear in many cities. The two Italian rocks I write about, travertine and Carrara marble, are commonly used across the US as well. I really didn’t consider discussing rocks from other places, though I can think of many that have great stories, such as Stonehenge, the Great Pyramids, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the salt chapels of Wieliczka in Poland, the Great Wall of China, and the stone churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia.
[Switek] In the same vein, I am sure there were more buildings to talk about than space in the book. Could you tell us about one that didn’t make the cut?
[Williams] I had originally planned a chapter on the Lincoln Memorial, made from Colorado’s Yule Marble, a stone that one long-time supporter called the “whitest, prettiest, and all things considered, the best marble.” Few had heard of the Yule until the monument’s architect, Henry Bacon, began to push for it. Even after the acclaim for the Lincoln Memorial, the Yule stone never did well financially. A junk dealer bought the quarry two years after completion of the memorial. Little stone came out until 1931, when the quarry provided a 56-ton block for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Unfortunately, a major crack appeared in the block. In recent years, there has been an attempt to replace the Tomb with a new block of Yule Marble but has been stymied by bureaucratic red tape.
[Switek] I was surprised to learn that Michelangelo’s choice in stone for his art still influences architecture (for better or worse) to this day. Can you tell my readers a little bit about this?
[Williams] Michelangelo’s influence on what stone people choose to use continues because he helped make Carrara marble the most famous marble in the world. Carrara had been used for close to 2,000 years by the time Michelangelo carved his stunning sculptures and his work sealed Carrara’s reputation. He made Carrara the most prestigious and dignified stone–the stone that people turned to when they wanted a short hand way of showing “I am a success. I can afford to use the same stone as Michelangelo.”
Of course, this can have some negative consequences as Standard Oil (later Amoco) learned when they used over 44,000 panels of Carrara to clad their world headquarters in Chicago. Completed in 1972, the 1,136-foot tall edifice was the tallest marble clad building in the world. Sadly for Amoco, the panels couldn’t withstand the Chicago weather and began to warp, which forced Amoco to have to replace every panel of marble with granite at a cost of between $70 and $80 million
[Switek] Here in New Jersey there is almost always a lot of construction going on, but I hardly ever see stone being used in buildings. Is stone still important to urban architecture and what kinds of stone are preferred for building today? Do you think there will still be some urban geology left to investigate one hundred years from now?
[Williams] Stone is still very important in the building trade. Granite saw a resurgence in popularity starting in the 1980s, which has continued to this day. The Salem Limestone quarries in Indiana, though less busy than in the past, still ship large quantities around the world. As noted above marble’s reputation for dignity and prestige has not waned. Sandstone is one rock though that is not used as it once was.
I think we will always have good urban geology to study. What we won’t be able to learn, however, is about local rock. As in so many areas of commerce, fewer and fewer people are buying local. Since Roman times, stone has been a widely traded commodity but now it is even more so. Go downtown to any city and you can find rocks from around the world. As one who values this diversity because of the beauty of the stones and the stories they tell, I also recognize that shipping rock around the globe takes an environmental toll. I have sort of jokingly started to promote what I call the Slow Stone movement, which encourages people to use local rock when possible. My catchphrase is “Prevent the Reuniting of Gondwanaland; Don’t Ship Stone.” We’ll see if it catches on.
Many thanks to David Williams for the interview. You can also check out more “Stories in Stone” at his blog.