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Stone carvers work magic on Madison project

By ANDREA ANDERSON
Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — It is a humid 89-degree morning when Jacob Arndt unloads chisels and other tools from his truck onto a table at the University Club, where he begins massaging one of two slabs of Indiana limestone.

The 1,000-pound stone, untouched before grinders and saws dwindled it down to a rectangle, was chiseled by hand into a finished product with smooth curves and delicate rims.

“It’s a dead art,” Arndt said while brushing the smooth stone that will become a cornice — a horizontal, decorative molding that goes along the top of a building.

The art that Arndt, owner of Madison-based Northwestern Masonry, refers to is hand stone carving.

Arndt and Gayal Oglesbay, another Madison stone carver and owner of Earthly Designs, began working on the exterior restoration of the University Club early last fall, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

Since then, they’ve replaced four of six cornices and porch balusters. The project will continue after the placement of the last cornices this week, with tuck-pointing of the original brick walls tentatively scheduled for this fall.

Jacob Arndt of Northwestern Masonry hand-carves stone cornices which will be placed above the entrance to the University Club on the UW-Madison campus Wednesday, July 17, 2013. Constructed of Indiana limestone, the embellishments will replace deteriorating original accents which had adorned the building since 1925. The effort is part of an ongoing exterior restoration of the historic building, which also includes the replacement of porch balusters and tuck-pointing of the original brick walls. (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, John Hart)

Jacob Arndt of Northwestern Masonry carves stone cornices that will be placed above the entrance to the University Club on the UW-Madison campus. Constructed of Indiana limestone, the embellishments will replace deteriorating original accents that had adorned the building since 1925. The effort is part of an ongoing exterior restoration of the historic building, which also includes the replacement of porch balusters and tuck-pointing of the original brick walls. (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, John Hart)

Justin Duris, University Club general manager, said the restoration was necessary to protect the architectural history of the building and maintain safety after water damage caused stones to loosen and move.

“The thing about this building is that it’s gorgeous, and people aren’t building these any more and it’s very important that we took the time to do it right,” Duris said.

Stone carvers are few and far between, according to Arndt and Oglesbay.

“I really rarely find someone who carves stone,” Oglesbay said. “A lot of people will putz around or use machinery, but people who carve it originally with hammers and chisels and use math and come up with the exact product are hard to find.”

According to Walter Arnold, treasurer and past president of the national Stone Carvers Guild, there are between 50 and 90 stone carvers in the U.S.

“It comes down to subjective criteria on skill levels; if you limit to those good enough by 1913 standards to have held down a job in a good shop back then, the current numbers are significantly lower,” Arnold wrote in an email. “If you use looser criteria and quality standards, it’s easily at the top of that number range.”

The craft is growing, however, said Mary Condon, owner of Texas Carved Stone in Florence, Texas.

“There used to be thousands of stone carvers in the U.S. in the late 1800s, and then the crafts died out after World War II, and there has been a renaissance from the ’60s going onward,” Condon said. “When these buildings are in need of repairs, it’s people like Jacob and Gayal who they look to do it.”

Duris, who hired the duo for the University Club work, had no prior knowledge of historical preservation or stone carving.

“My initial thought was that machines carved the stone, but he (Jacob) sits and carves by hand,” Duris said. “It’s just him and Gayal up there, hoisting it up and getting it just right. It’s amazingly gentle.”

The key skill in stone carving is patience.

“With this kind of work it is not push, push, push; you need to relax,” Arndt said. With historic preservation work, “you have to massage the stone rather than push it,” he said.

Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, http://www.madison.com/wsj

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