Written by Joseph D. Kubal:
Recently, I came across a book that may be of interest to all you earth science enthusiasts. It is entitled, “Stories in Stone: Travels through Urban Geology” written by David B. Williams. The book contains a myriad of tales concerning a little researched facet of traditional geology and focuses on what may be called “urban geology.”
The preface of the book begins with the lines, “Most people do not think of geology when they are walking on the sidewalks of a major city. But when ever I [Williams] am in the world, whether strolling through downtown Boston or hiking in the North Cascades, rocks are the first thing I see.” These lines appropriately set the stage for the rest of the volume with its ten “stories”.
The first chapter is a history of Portland brown sandstone, affectionately dubbed “brownstone.”
As many of you know, a brownstone typically refers to specific architectural style of building – the row house. Row houses are commonly found in the eastern seaboard cities of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia and they are often narrow brick and frame buildings sheathed with a veneer of brown sandstone. The story presented by Williams not only takes us through a history of the brownstone row house, but masterfully weaves in tales of the Portland, Connecticut quarries; quarrying methods; the geologic evolution of the stone; and Edward Hitchcock, a prominent geologist and scholar who thought dinosaur tracks were made by birds.
The second story deals with Quincy (Boston) granite. It tells of King’s Chapel (1754), “the first building of any architectural pretension” in downtown Boston, Massachusetts to use this particular stone in its construction. The story then goes on to relate the formation of the Granite Railway, which is considered by some to be the first railroad in the United States. This rail line was started in 1826 to help bring granite from the Quincy quarry to the building site of the Bunker Hill monument, a Revolutionary War monument whose story is also told. The use of the Tarbox method (also termed the plug and feather method) for quarrying large blocks of stone is mentioned as well as a discussion of terranes, which according to the book’s glossary, are “fault-bounded bodies of rock, with limited extant, characterized by a geologic history different from that of adjacent rocks.”
We now travel to the opposite side of America to “hear” our next installment. Chapter three is entitled, “Poetry in Stone – Carmel Granite.” This section of the book summarizes the creation of Tor House and Hawk Tower, the self-built Carmel, California home of renowned American poet Robinson Jeffers. The poet’s residence is perched atop the shores of the nearby Pacific Ocean and is built from local rock collected at the seashore. This chapter contains short selections of Jeffers’ poetry that reflect on the poet’s relation to nature and the book’s author waxes poetically for a while. Williams brings us “back to earth” with a discussion of plate tectonics, subduction zones, accretionary wedges, island arcs, and more. Terranes are again discussed.
The fourth chapter introduces us to the concept of geologic time using Morton gneiss as a primary example. This Minnesota building stone is among the oldest used in the construction industry. Dated at 3.5 billion years old, this metamorphosed rock aids us in pondering earth’s long chronology. The story here goes on to explain how rocks are geodated and how tiny zircons assist in this procedure. The evolution of geological thought and classical geological principles additionally are summarized in this selection. The concepts of unconformities; nonconformities; and disconformities, specific types of gaps in the geological record are offered within these pages. Of particular note to Chicago aficionados is that the Adler Planetarium on the city’s vast lakefront is surfaced with the pink and black taffy-swirled Morton gneiss.
Halfway through the volume, we encounter gray Florida coquina, a rock composed of compressed clam shells that, according to Williams, “changed the world.” This discourse presents a history of Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, a military stronghold that employed coquina rock throughout the fortifications. We get a lesson here in the politics of the 16th and 17th centuries and the skirmishes between the superpowers of the day – England, France, and Spain. The development of this rough form of limestone is explored from living bivalve through lithification to sedimentary building stone as well.
The sixth selection, “America’s Building Stone” brings us into the realm of the paleontologist. Salem (Indiana) limestone, sometimes called oolitic limestone or Bedford limestone, primarily is composed of numerous, ancient brachiopod; bryozoan; and crinoid fossils. According to the author, Salem limestone is the most common building stone in America. It has been used in construction projects in all fifty states. One of the most famous structures in the U.S., the Empire State Building, is covered with it. The “Salem” has been used everywhere from over 750 post offices to 27 state capital buildings across the country. Chicagoans should note that the great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 helped to promote widespread use of the Indiana stone nationally.
Petrified Wood is seldom used in construction. The seventh installment of the book highlights the use of the exotic material in the facing of William Brown’s one-of-a-kind gas station located in Lamar, Colorado. The creation of petrified wood from a living organism to stone is chronicled.
The use of Carrara Italian marble by Michelangelo for his statuary is well known. The eighth story line traces the utilization of this pure white marble by the famous sculptor and adds a tremendously interesting twist about Chicago’s Standard Oil Building (a.k.a. the Amoco Building, currently called the Aon Building). The present facing of the building is made of granite, but how it got that way forms the basis of this entertaining story. We are transported back to the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans to see why we have “romanticized” white marble.
The next to last episode has many of us recalling our childhood memories of standing before a school blackboard. The enchanting tale also relates to us the use of slate, particularly Pennsylvania slate, in billiard tables, for roofing shingles, and in grave markers. For each of these uses, a bit of history is provided. As is typical with most of the stories in the volume, descriptions of quarrying methods for the stone and the lithification processes involved in the stone’s creation are well documented.
The book concludes with a story about travertine, a stone of which many of us are less familiar, even though it forms the “falls” at Mammoth Hot Springs in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park. However, travertine is used as a building stone in the venerable Colosseum, officially dubbed the Amphitheater of Flavius, in Rome, Italy and its story is told here. A more modern example of the use of travertine is cited in the walls and walks of the Getty Center of Los Angeles, California. Here 20,000 year old fossil leaves embellish the structure. The final chapter leaves us with a look at nannobacteria and brings us to the question of how small in size is life ascertainable.
Overall, I would highly recommend this book, especially, as expected, to those with an interest in the earth sciences. I found the numerous descriptions of the various quarrying methods mentioned somewhat tedious, but, personally, I learn better by seeing examples rather than reading. The book’s subtitle seemed to me to be a bit of a misnomer. The book tends to contain more geological history than true “urban” geology, and could be considered to be more as essays in space-time travel with “jumps” among the eons and throughout the world to examine various rocks and buildings. The unique separate stories were skillfully integrated into what I would pronounce a geological textbook. The title of the book, however, is accurate. They were indeed “stories in stone.” There were few drawbacks to book, but more photos and sketches are needed to supplement text to those not familiar with architecture terminology and quarrying methodology. The book does however include a short, useful glossary of geologic and architectural terms. Color photos would have been a useful, welcome addition as well. A satisfying, informative read!