THE BUILDER'S REPUTATION IS SAFE INSIDE VERMONT'S MARBLE MOUNTAIN
New Underground Fabrication Works Assures Continued Production of an Indispensable American Building Stone.
By John M. Corbett
END OF THE ROAD. Quarry Road dead ends at a tunnel into a ledge halfway up Dorset Mountain, the century old entrance to the vast warren of underground galleries that is home to Danby Quarry and a new stone fabrication facility.
Increased demand for building stone has sparked renewed activity at some historic quarries, none more notably than at the Vermont Quarries' Danby Quarry, inside Dorset Mountain. Historic building stone gives the builder an advantage that stone from unfamiliar sources can't match; its durability in local climate conditions can be accurately understood by observing the performance of the stone in existing buildings. Over two centuries, Vermont marble has been shipped so widely that no part of settled North America is without a nearby example. Porosity, permeability and other stone characteristics can be measured scientifically and their effect upon durability scientifically sort of guessed at, but until material has been exposed to a local climate for many years, its true character cannot be known. A carefully chosen historic building stone can help to guarantee the builder's legacy. A beautiful but untried import can cause it to crumble and spall. To discover the role of Danby marble in the building industry today, we met with the quarry's general manager, Luca Mannolini, and toured the underground mountain site.
According to Luca Mannolini, a $2 million investment by quarry operators in a stone fabrication facility inside the quarry has insured the future availability of Vermont's Danby marbles. Formerly, stone produced at the quarry was shipped in blocks to Italy for fabrication, but it can now be processed on site for better selection, lower cost and quicker scheduling. Danby Quarry is the biggest underground marble quarry in the world, over a mile long with a footprint of twenty five acres and reaching six levels deep. To the first time visitor, endless dimly lit galleries with thirty foot ceilings supported by massive roof pillars create a sensation of trespassing in a dusty subway tunnel for giants. Ten-foot marble chainsaws, massive loaders racing winding roads over the "hills" in the quarry and a brand new gang saw big enough to park a small car inside all support this impression. Everything in the quarry is built to match the scale of the smallest unit of work, the twenty ton block of marble. Luca Mannolini is a native of Carrarra, Italy, the traditional capitol of marble production and a region where marble has been worked since Roman times. He has helped to develop world class technology at the quarry and cites the brand new production line as evidence of Vermont Quarries' long term confidence in the continued growth in demand. Five varieties of marble are produced at Danby Quarry. Through the six levels, they can access every layer of the geologic formation that formed Vermont's Marble Valley, thereby approximating material from almost any historic quarry in the region.
The oldest examples of the reliability of Danby marble are to be found in its home, Vermont's Marble Valley. The first marble works on the mountain were operated late in the 18th century and the liberal use of this material in local, early vernacular structures amply documents this activity. So common that it was put to use in paving and retaining walls, it can still be seen in long service in the most humble and difficult roles. By the early 19th century, significant public buildings were being fabricated and shipped from here. The formal Greek Revival US Customs House in Erie, PA, built in 1837, is an early surviving example. By the end of that century, Marble Valley was the biggest marble producing region in the US with scores of fabrication mills and quarries operating along the sixty-five mile north south formation that gave the area its name. The Danby Quarry is almost all that remains of this industry and is the only reliable source for this important and influential historic building material.
BREAD SLICER. This new 80 gang saw is about to be drawn through these two twenty ton blocks of marble, the work of about one shift. Note the pitch of the blocks, set by the grader to obtain the best cut from the stone.
A tour of the grading, slabbing and finishing line at the quarry includes a number of current projects which demonstrate how history continues to drive demand for Danby marble. This is nowhere more apparent than in the quarry's ongoing contracts with the Veteran's Administration. Luca Mannolini shows us slabs of honed Olympian Danby white marble being sawn into niche covers for marking remains in mausoleums. This relationship goes back to 1866 when a local "Gettysburg" quarry got the exclusive contract to furnish monuments to the Union dead in the newly opened Arlington Cemetery. At the end of the finishing line, ready for shipment, were leaning a matched series of toilet partitions cut out of a single block of Imperial Danby. These are destined for a new gym at the 1909 Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, DC. Although part of a new facility, the choice of Danby marble here was determined by its original use elsewhere throughout the structure's interior. Sitting beside them were a quantity of 3 ½ inch thick honed veneers produced for a new addition to the 1928 US Court of Appeals in Albany, NY. This building was constructed with Imperial Danby, but some very large federal projects, such as the 1932 US Senate building, present a more promiscuous range of varieties. Whether this laxity was the result of the pressures of production (the building would represent a year's output for the quarry) or a lack of awe for the material in the face of so much of it, it is clear that standards have risen. Rigorous grading and cutting choices make the most of every block produced by the quarry today. In the grading area, blocks of Imperial Danby sat waiting to be sawn into slabs for veneer and pilasters for the restoration of the 1907 Italianate retail "palace" built by the jeweler Tiffany's on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Victim to a modernization fifty years ago, the storefront level pilastered facade had been removed and replaced with a continuous band of black granite. Danby marble is not original to the project, but the architect felt that it was a credible match for the Hudson Valley marble contiguous above, now no longer available.
In new work, historic material delivers not just proven durability, but a familiar authority derived from continuity with the existing historic built environment that shares in it. In the case of Danby marble, this is mostly important public buildings. Danby Quarry has quite recently produced many new buildings including temples for the Church of the Latter Day Saints in Columbus, Raleigh and Detroit and The Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis. Builders are learning that the choice of a building stone is a consequential one and this understanding has produced a renewed interest in classic materials. Danby Quarry expects to continue to expand capacity and production to meet the demand for this trusted building stone. In the estimate of Luca Mannolini, there is enough marble left inside Dorset Mountain to rebuild the entire existing marble built environment.