Formstone Lives Even as many houses are shedding their fake fronts, Formstone is finding its way onto others.

July 27, 1997|By Charles Cohen | Charles Cohen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

By all accounts, Aado Vaigro shouldn't have been up on the scaffolding.

It wasn't because the temperature threatened to crack 100 degrees, nor was it because the 68-year-old was stepping between buckets and trowels on shaky planks three stories in the air.

It was because he was installing Formstone, the fossil of fake house fronts.

In the 1990s, the working words in restoration are natural brick and exposed beams -- not the glittery faux stone that has been giving homeowners intent on rehabbing so much trouble.

These days, people go to great lengths and expense to rip down the "flamingo pink" and "swimming pool blue" cement casing to get to the red brick hidden underneath. Removing Formstone can increase a row home's property value by $10,000, said Ron Zimmerman Jr., a Realtor in Federal Hill, a neighborhood that has been shucking its Formstone image.

Whether fair or not, Formstone has come to be seen as a warning sign of crumbling frontage underneath.

"I have customers who won't go into a Formstone house," Zimmerman said.

Even in a world of such economic forces and peer pressure to rip it off, there are still a few Formstone lovers to keep Vaigro and a shrinking number of Formstone masons in business.

These recent converts to the 50-year-old fashion statement are responding to the same market forces that made Baltimore the Formstone capital of the world. Formstone is a long-lasting, maintenance-free building material.

Before its inventor, Albert Knight, patented the idea of covering buildings in cement in 1936, Baltimore homeowners were trapped in an endless cycle of painting their brick fronts. A lost trade itself, people known as "stripers" would paint brick homes, painstakingly drawing in white lines as mortar joints.

Dean Krimmel, of the Baltimore City Life Museums, said Formstone was the answer to all that painting, and made a home appear cared for. "All the conditions were right for it," he said.

By the 1950s, when the patent for Formstone, manufactured by Lasting Products Co. on South Franklintown Road, expired, the boom already had swept way beyond Baltimore. The Formstone Co., which taught the trade to masons ran the crews and distributed the products, had grown into a nationwide franchise. Its results can be seen along the East Coast, in Colorado and in California. But here in Baltimore, there was nothing less than a marketing phenomenon going on block by block.

"I think more than any other material in Baltimore, Formstone transmogrified this city," said Eric Holcomb, a city planner for the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. "It didn't just change it physically, but it changed its look. All of a sudden you have old brick buildings, stained by coal and industrial smoke, getting a new, clean look."

The demand was so intense that Formstone treated the city as an assembly line.

Specialized crews would go out, one setting up the scaffolding,the next hanging the wire netting that held the Formstone and still another sculpting brick out of the cement, according to Vaigro, who worked with the company.

Sometimes, Vaigro recalled, a crew would set up on one block, not even using a salesman to gather orders. Rather, the work crew just waited until the neighbors came up and requested a job. If a resident came from the next block over, Vaigro said, he'd be told to wait his turn.

Soon, about 20 smaller companies had sprung up. Many of them owned by former Formstone employees, said Vaigro, who went on to form Modern Stone. Each company developed its own style. There were Perma-stone, Rx Stone, Bond Stone and Romanstone, many of which still stand along the street scape as distinct as geological epochs. Some used different shades of colors. Others have different mortar cuts. Some used geometric shapes. Most companies stuck to Formstone's method of carving the bricks with a trowel right on the wall. A few used a mold.

"I can tell you who did what job. It's like a fingerprint," said Robert Ibex, who started Dixie Stone in the 1940s and is one of the few working Formstone masons left.

Trouble came for the Formstone Co. in the 1960s, according to Fred Schruefer, who started with Lasting Products in 1949. Schruefer said customers started cashing in on their lifetime guarantee when the wire meshing holding the stone began to rust, forcing Formstone Co. out of business in the late 1960s. He was with Lasting Products as a plant manager until it went bankrupt in 1972.

Today, the hand-sculpted brick tradition is kept alive by a few masons such as Ibex and Vaigro, who say they won't stop until their health gives out.

Last week, David DeMaine of Water Oak Road in Ridgeleigh, just south of Baynesville, hired Ibex, who replaced the wood molding around the door with a white Formstone frame that now stands flush against the brick house.

DeMaine, who grew up in upstate New York and never saw Formstone until he moved to Baltimore in 1988, said he didn't like the contemporary choice of wood or aluminum door moldings.

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