Feat of Formstone lies, curiously, in Baltimore Co.

June 23, 1994|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

Tall, leafy trees cast cool shadows across the two-story house sited on a broad, well-trimmed lawn in rural Kingsville, where thick woods provide a verdant backdrop for the neighborhood's Formstone jewel.

Formstone -- in Kingsville?

Right. There, among the clapboard and shingle Cape Cods, the brick ranchers and split-levels and the upscale new McMansions, stands the area's only known example of the sculpted, multicolored, pseudo-stone facade that came to define faraway rowhouse Baltimore.

"Mom and Dad got older, and they wanted a house that was pretty maintenance-free," recalled Harry Sanders, whose parents' Jerusalem Road home got "the treatment" in the early 1970s, when thousands of other Formstone homeowners were pulling the stuff off.

And what a treatment it got from David Pidcoe, Mr. Sanders' cousin, who was in the business. "He Formstoned half of East Baltimore," Mr. Sanders said, "and he Formstoned everything on this house."

Four sides, dormers, gables, eaves, the chimney, the cellar entrance, the decorative front wall -- in short, everything on the asphalt-shingled home that would hold the Formstone except the roof.

Then he turned his attention to the small summer house where the family held crab feasts. It got a special Formstone coating, impregnated with ground mica and Carborundum blown on under pressure inside and outside. The coating sparkles in the sunlight.

Mr. Sanders, who grew up in the pre-Formstone house in the northeastern corner of Baltimore County and now lives on the adjoining lot, laughs about living next to a local landmark. "People stop when they see it and many ask, how did the whole thing get done?"

It was as big a job as any he ever undertook, said Mr. Pidcoe, 63, who retired from the business in 1978 and from the Harford County schools maintenance department in 1992.

"I can't think of any other where we covered quite so much. We had four men working on it, and it took quite a long time -- I don't remember just how long. The chimneys and dormers made it more difficult," Mr. Pidcoe said.

Just as unusual was the location. Mr. Pidcoe said he covered hundreds of rowhouse facades in the working class neighborhoods of East, South and West Baltimore. But in affluent North Baltimore jobs were rare, and Formstone on buildings as far away as Kingsville was almost unheard of.

Many of the area's newer residents are transplants from the old Formstone neighborhoods, and inevitably jokes arise about their being unable to escape their cultural heritage, Mr. Sanders said.

William F. McCartin, the nearest neighbor, a long half-block away, agreed that a Formstoned house is unusual in such a rural setting but said, "It's a nice house, and it looks fine from the road with all the trees around it."

The artificial Formstone appeared about 1940 and boomed in the post-war years, particularly in older neighborhoods with homes built from unfired brick that required frequent repainting or sealing to keep water from seeping in.

Formstone salesmen spieled that the covering would virtually eliminate maintenance, insulate the house and of course, improve its appearance. When one homeowner succumbed, neighbors usually followed.

Other artificial stone facings appeared under many names, including Silverstone, Permastone, Krystalstone, Romanstone and Field Stone. However, the process was basically the same: Wire mesh was nailed to the house front and a primer coat of cement was slapped on. When that hardened, a second primer coat was applied and the shapes of the "stones" in the finish coat were sketched into soft cement.

To finish a Formstone job, workers applied cement mixed with gray, brown, blue, green or yellow coloring and sculpted it free-hand with plasterers' trowels. Artificial stone facings were the rage in many rowhouse neighborhoods until the 1960s, when gentrifiers and restorationists began to argue that much of Baltimore's architectural heritage had been covered.

And so began the great movement to remove the stuff -- which is a lot harder than putting it on, Mr. Pidcoe said. "We had to use pry bars and everything to break it loose and pull it off."

Aado Vaigro, 65, of Glen Arm is one of the last artisans who will still apply Formstone -- if anybody wants it. But he spends much of his time removing old Formstone and replacing it with Modern Brickcoat, a similar coating that replicates the original brick.

In fact, Formstone frequently failed to live up to its protective hype, and there were many complaints that it allowed water to seep behind it, crumble the brick and ruin wooden window frames.

Carl Foertschbeck, 34, who has rented the Kingsville house from Mr. Sanders for two years, said that may be the case on Jerusalem Road. "The Formstone holds the water, and I think maybe it's rotting the wood underneath," he said.

While he will be moving soon to a new home in Joppatowne, he said, he has enjoyed living in a unique house.

The Formstone patent was issued in 1940 to the Formstone Co. of Baltimore, whose president, L. Albert Knight, pioneered the process. When the patent expired in 1957, competitors flooded the market. Formstone eventually went out of business, and Mr. Knight died in 1976.

But his legacy persists, according to Mr. Pidcoe and Mr. Vaigro. While many cities may have buildings covered with artificial stone, they say, Baltimore will always be the Formstone capital of the world.

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