Baltimores put up a good front Documentary: Looking to save a few bucks on upkeep, homeowners installed this sparkly facade. Now two independent filmmakers capture the charms of Charm City's gift to renovation: Formstone.

September 17, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

It's beautiful, hon. And don't let anyone tell you any differently.

Formstone, that faux rock that six decades of Baltimoreans have used to cover up their high-maintenance brick exteriors, may be a revoltin' development to some arbiters of taste, but not to the men and women featured in a soon-to-be-completed documentary by a pair of local filmmakers.

Take John Durkin, for instance, who lives in Highlandtown with his wife, Mary.

"It looked like shantytown when it was red brick," Durkin explains to the camera in "Little Castles: The Formstone Phenomenon," a film by Baltimoreans Lillian Bowers and Skizz Cyzyk. "The man came and Formstoned it ... made it look like Hollywood. That's ... the God's Truth."

Or take Ida Esposito, who made her film debut extolling the virtues of Formstone. Not only does she like the way it looks, but in the half-century since she and her late husband, Armando, had it put on their Fells Point home, she hasn't had to paint the house once -- a chore they used to perform every two years or so.

The Formstone salesmen "were coming around," she remembers, "and they said it would last a long time. Now, I see that it did. It's still on there, almost 50 years later."

Producer Bowers, whose research into Formstone provided the basis for the documentary, admits she started the project about five years ago as something of a joke. She figured it was a chance to mock a peculiar Baltimore institution -- one that seems so quaint to outsiders and is so hated by historic preservationists and cultural aesthetes.

But her research, she says, won her over. Almost.

"I have a completely different feeling about it now," she says. "I like everything about it but the way it looks.

"Formstone, aesthetically, would not be my choice, but I do think it did sort of unify neighborhoods. And it typified the positive virtues of so many Baltimoreans: clean, hard-working, straightforward, what-you-see-is-what-you-get. I have great affection for Formstone."

Perhaps that affection explains the unintended irony: When it comes to Formstone, what you see is decidedly not what you get. Gobs of cement troweled over a home's brick front, topped with a layer of water-repellent material and sprinkled with silica (to make everything sparkle), Formstone is all about deception.

The result is a layer of what looks like stone (especially from a distance) that can hide a variety of sins. Sometimes, all it covers is a home in need of a paint job. In at least one Otterbein renovation project, it covered a crumbling brick wall that, once the Formstone was removed, fell like a house of cards.

Bowers says her interest in Formstone was born in a dream. "I'm walking through a graveyard," she explains, "and I look down, and all the tombstones are being Formstoned over. I come to my great-grandfather's tombstone, and they're covering over his name. I ask them to stop, and they just blow me off. A priest comes over and hands me a bill, and that's when I wake up."

Such a dream would send some people to analysis. For Bowers, it sent her on a quest, to find out all she could about the stuff.

About three years ago, she connected up with Cyzyk, whom she had met recently while taking classes at Towson University. Cyzyk, whose Mansion Theater on York Road has served as a showcase for Baltimore's independent film community since 1993, says he had recently started thinking along similar lines.

"At first, I thought that making a film with that as a subject would make a really funny joke, but then I read Lillian's research," he says. "There's a lot more to Formstone than lower-class homes with stone siding. I actually like it. When it's done really well, it looks beautiful. Of course, when it's not done really well, it's not as nice."

So far, the 30-minute film has cost about $20,000, Bowers says, with the two filmmakers supplementing various grants and loans with money out of their own pockets.

There's still some work to be done: a music score (by Lynn F. Kowal and Darren Otero) and narration need to be added. But once they get around to finishing it -- sooner rather than later, Cyzyk hopes -- the filmmakers hope to see it aired on MPT, followed by possible sales to cable and the BBC.

"Little Castles" certainly deserves to be seen, offering as it does a fine introduction to an almost uniquely Baltimore institution.

Formstone began covering up homes in these parts after World War II, and soon became all the rage. Homeowners liked the way it looked and liked the work and money it saved them -- getting your house Formstoned cost the equivalent of about three paint jobs -- and lasted a lot longer.

And, if that weren't enough, plenty of high-pressure salesmen were around to convince them. Barry Levinson immortalized the men and their methods in his 1987 film "Tin Men," though he changed them to aluminum-siding salesmen. Who outside of Baltimore could grasp the concept of Formstone?

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