Crafting a seat at history's table

White marble has stood as a Baltimore icon for decades, primarily as rowhouse steps, the preferred gathering place for residents in many neighborhoods.

The marble also served as the street-level façade for a number of downtown buildings, greeting thousands of Baltimoreans on their daily rush to work. But amid decades of renovation and redevelopment, cheaper replacements relegated countless tons of once-gleaming stone to the dump.

That's where Stuart B. Foard found inspiration for a heavyweight home project.

He needed a patio table in scale with his Reisterstown home, perched atop a hill with no mature trees to block the wind. He trolled local salvage yards, looking for something to fit under the generous pergola he built in 2011.

"I was looking for something big and heavy that wouldn't get blown away," said Foard, 47.

While browsing one day at The Loading Dock in East Baltimore, a nonprofit depot for used building materials that's not exactly a dump, Foard spotted a pallet of marble slabs.

They were 4 feet wide and caked with mortar and caulk. Thinner than typical rowhome steps at 21/2 inches, each slab weighed 130 or 140 pounds. Some were tapered, and some had a lip that would need cutting off. For $25, he bought just one to play with. Soon after, the price dropped to $10 apiece.

"I'm pretty cheap. Frugal," Foard said. "I said, 'Heck, I gotta try to make this work.' "

Although the Cockeysville native had never carved stone in his life, he decided on transforming more than a dozen pieces of the marble into a banquet-size table.

A civil engineer at a commercial real estate development company, Foard never worked in the construction field, at least not with his hands. But the problem-solving nature of his job helped.

"I like to know how stuff goes together," he said. Plus, his woodworking efforts have produced other items for his home, including cabinets, a mantel, a coffee table and a surround for a kitchen exhaust hood.

Foard bought 17 more pieces of stone and borrowed tools from work, including one that looks like a chain saw with a 12-inch diamond-tipped blade. Cutting every side of every piece, he spent months trying to square up the stone.

"I probably handled every one of those pieces 25 times," Foard said.

Thicknesses varied among the stones, so to make the tabletop even, he screwed two strips of individually sized and stained mahogany lengthwise on the bottom of each. Sixteen-foot-long pine barn beams, found at CCR Timber Salvage in Mount Airy, hold up the marble. The beams run the length of the 30-inch-tall table and sit atop 10-by-10-inch recycled barn beams treated with teak oil. None of the marble is attached to the table base — it's so heavy, it doesn't need to be.

White marble is an essential part of Baltimore's social fabric, says local artist Sebastian Martorana, whose stone sculpture "Impressions" is on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's "40 Under 40: Craft Futures" exhibit in Washington. A professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Martorana said white marble typifies more than just the city's architectural look.

"It's unarguably a very significant piece of Baltimore's cultural history," he says.

Mined at the Beaver Dam quarries near Cockeysville, white marble first appeared in fancier Baltimore houses in the 1850s, said Mary Ellen Hayward, co-author of "The Baltimore Rowhouse." The stone came into wide use in two-story rowhouses around 1900, she said, and marble from the quarry is believed to have been used in the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol building.

A rowhouse builder's marketing brochures from the early 1900s promote the prestige of "marble houses," Hayward added, "saying this is a cool place to live."

Foard said he believes his marble table came from rowhouse steps. But Leslie Kirkland, executive director of The Loading Dock, said she's "fairly certain" it came from the base of a building at Sinai Hospital in Northwest Baltimore.

Built into window columns during a 1970 expansion at Sinai Hospital, the slabs were removed in 2009 to make way for an atrium, according to Lew Poe, Sinai's director of facilities.

The store at one point had five pallets of the stone, which it was pitching to customers for reuse as garden benches, Kirkland said.

Experts praised Foard's vision and pointed out that a homeowner doesn't have to be an artist or designer to find inspiration for such a project.

"I find it encouraging that anyone would see the potential in a material that has been cast away and use it," said Lane Myer, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, who teaches sculpture and furniture design.

Reusing building materials comes with risks, however — such as a history that may not be so palatable. Myer once considered recycling stone in Connecticut that turned out to be former bathroom stall dividers from Yale University, and he wondered how much to tell the customer.

"Ultimately, what wins anybody over is the beauty of what's been made," Myer said.

Once he completed the table last summer, Foard and his wife, Debra, inaugurated it with a quintessentially Baltimore feast — they invited some neighbors over and steamed some crabs. Later, around Thanksgiving, another guest marveled at the table but worried about spilling red wine on it.

Foard, however, didn't worry a bit.

"This is marble. It's tough. And it's Baltimore. Tough again," he said. "That's the beauty of it. I can just sand it out."

Local salvage yards

To turn steps into something stupendous, start by trolling these salvage yards in Baltimore. You also might want first to try a simpler project, such as transforming a a door into a headboard or a mirror into a table. Budget several hours to comb through the offerings. You might be seeking broken tiles to make a mosaic and instead find old roof slate to make into wall tile.

Habitat for Humanity's ReStore, chesapeakerestore.org. All locations open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5p.m.; 505 Kane St., Dundalk 21224, 410-633-0505; 3741 Commerce Dr., Suite 311, Halethorpe 21227, 443-297-5141; and 8101 Fort Smallwood Road, Pasadena 21226, 410-437-7755.

The Loading Dock, 2 N. Kresson St., Baltimore, 410-558-3625, loadingdock.org. Open Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Thursday 8 a.m.-8 p.m. (April-September).

Second Chance, 1700 Ridgely St., Baltimore, secondchanceinc.org, 410-385-1700. Open Monday-Sunday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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