Formstone's glorious past

Dan Rodricks

February 24, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

I love a passionate woman and, after talking with Lillian Bowers, I get the distinct impression that no woman could be more passionate.

About Formstone.

She's the self-proclaimed Queen of Formstone, and people have taken to calling her that. She is making what she calls a "comic documentary" about the ubiquitous plaster coating that smothered block after block of rowhouse Baltimore. She has two working titles for the video. One is, "Formstone: Friend or Faux." The other, which I prefer, is, "Formstone, Taken For Granite."

Ms. Bowers is researching its origins, interviewing the men who made Baltimore the world capital of Formstone. She has even dreamed about Formstone. She dreamed that her great-grandfather's burial vault was being covered with the stuff, in a nice pastel no doubt.

That was the spark that ignited Lillian Bowers's fervor for Formstone. It came to her in a dream. "I love it," she says. "The story of Formstone is absolutely riveting."

It's one of the grand legends of Baltimore, too. Starting a little more than 50 years ago, contractors applied Formstone -- to the uninitiated, Formstone is a kind of stucco that was colored and shaped to look like cut stone -- over the walls of thousands of rowhouses from Highlandtown to Locust Point to Little Italy to Remington. At least 25 companies got into the business. "Formstone Is Everywhere!" proclaimed an advertisement in the high days of Formstone fever. There was a time when Formstone was the way to go. It was fashionable, it was stylish.

But it was not meant to last forever.

"We could be in a position, some years from now, of facing the prospect of the last of the Formstone houses," says John Cain, who represents East and southeast Baltimore, a Formstone forest, in the City Council. "Formstone doesn't have a long life. We should probably start thinking about preserving it in some way."

Cain grew up with Formstone in the 900 block of S. Bouldin Street. He remembers the day in 1954 when the Formstone men erected scaffolding at his parents' two-story rowhouse.

"I still have the invoice from when our house was Formstoned," Cain says. "It took a week or two to apply it. First, they put the wire mesh over the brick. Then they had to apply the base coat and let that dry. Then they applied the final facade. It cost my parents $325.

"I have an eight-by-ten, black-and-white picture of our house sent to us by the Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. with a form letter congratulating us on the Formstoning of our house."

Apparently, BG&E considered Formstoning a form of weatherization, something that would contribute to energy conservation. I'm sure there were all kinds of angles to the salesman's pitch.

"Mark my words," Eric Swegle, an avid Formstonologist and conductor of neighborhood tours for Baltimore Heritage, said last year. "When this stuff starts coming down rapidly, there'll be Formstone societies formed to save it."

Swegle, a student of architecture and proprietor of a vintage furniture shop in West Baltimore, will be glad to hear of Councilman Cain's expression of concern for the future of Formstone. As a matter of fact, at a recent City Hall hearing on nominees for the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, the councilman wanted to know if commission candidates would consider taking action to preserve Formstone. Glory be, they all said they would!

A single block could be designated a Formstone Preservation District. Individual homes, with particularly stunning facades, could apply for historic designation. Anything is possible.

Cain says there is a single block of Bank Street, near Patterson Park, where one can enjoy all matter of classic Baltimore styling and the great gestalt of rowhouse life -- Formstone, white marble steps, artificially grained doors, painted screens and "striping," which was the practice of painting bricks, often blood-red, and highlighting the mortar with bright white paint. "There are some striped houses where the striping doesn't match the mortar, where they painted their ownbricks over bricks," Cain says.

The sentiment to preserve this folksy aspect of rowhouse life celebrates good ole Baltimore. I salute it.

Lillian Bowers' video-documentary, presently planned to be 30 minutes in length, promises to extend the life of Formstone. Hers is a worthy endeavor. Formstone is passe; tons of it have been hauled away as the urban pioneers of the Baltimore Renaissance display a preference for exposed brick. There might come a day when a record, such as the one being produced by Ms. Bowers, will be needed by future generations of Baltimoreans. Formstone -- and how so much of it got here -- takes much explaining.

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