Saving thhe city's monumental illusion -- Formstone Kansas archhitect glories in Baltimore's contribution to the art of cover-up.

April 29, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

Eric Swegle worries that Formstone is fast becoming an endangered specimen of the true Baltimore style. He dreads the day when the last chunk of pastel plaster Formstone is chipped from the last Highlandtown rowhouse.

"Mark my words," Swegle says. "When this stuff starts coming down rapidly there'll be Formstone societies formed to save it."

Swegle's a font of Formstone lore as perhaps only a native of Manhattan, Kan., can be. He thinks maybe it takes somebody from out of town to really appreciate Formstone.

"I guess because I didn't grow up surrounded by it," he says, "I have a different perspective.

"I didn't really pay any attention to Formstone until I came to Baltimore." There's not much Formstone in Kansas, he says. "I do know of Formstone in Omaha, Nebraska.

"It positively amazed me that a material like this could cover so thoroughly a city the size of Baltimore."

Baltimore, of course, is the birthplace and world capital of Formstone.

"We have more Formstone than any other city in the world," Swegle says, then checks himself. "Maybe you should say in the country. I don't know if it exists outside of America."

Swegle studied architecture at Kansas State University, which is in Manhattan. He's now 30, an architectural preservationist, and he has a vintage furniture shop in West Baltimore called Charm City Junk. It's on the ground floor of the house where he lives, which is not Formstoned.

He's leading his second Formstone tour Sunday as part of for the Baltimore Heritage Spring Walking Tours. He's a little shy for a tour guide, but he's got a nice wry sense of humor. He calls his walk: "Formstone: Friend or Faux."

The tour starts at Highlandtown Elementary School, but Swegle doesn't like to reveal the exact route for fear of freeloaders. Baltimore Heritage raises money with the spring walking tours. It can be revealed that he'll lead his walkers on a butterfly pattern through the home precincts of Mimi DiPietro, who may be the only City Council person to live in a house with a Formstone front.

"Within these few blocks," Swegle says, "you can find the whole history of Formstone."

He uses the word "Formstone" generically for all the imitation stone frontings on Baltimore homes. But Formstone originally was a brand name coined by Albert Knight, the hometown genius who developed the Formstone process in 1937. He died 1976 in Naples, Fla., a man who'd left a large imprint on Baltimore.

At least 25 companies once slathered some form of Formstone, a type of stucco that is colored and shaped on the building to imitate various forms fo masonry, over blocks and blocks of Baltimore neighborhoods. But now only Aada Vaigro, who learned his craft with the original Formstone company, carries on. His Modern Stone Inc. is right busy, too.

But more Formstone is coming down than is going up, Swegle says. One Formstone remover he knows says it will all be gone in 20 years.

"I'm a preservationist," he says. "Whenever I see something disappear from an environment it sends up a sort of red flag.

"I'd be the first to admit Formstone has damaged and compromised a lot of historic buildings. It has nonetheless become part of Baltimore. It's come to represent Baltimore.

"Its ubiquity, the amount of Formstone, makes it hard to ignore. It's acquired a significance of its own."

His Formstone walk begins at 10 a.m. Sunday. The Baltimore Heritage tours will continue May 11 with "Sacred Spaces: The Mid-Town Churches," led by the Rev. Dale Dusman, pastor of St. Mark's Lutheran Church; "Canton: From Canneries to Condos," May 19, with John Cain, editor of the East Baltimore Guide; "Downtown Deco," June 2, with Donna Shapiro, president of the Art Deco Society; and the annual Mount Vernon Architectural Safari, June 9, led by Fred Shoken, Baltimore Heritage president.

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