A career fixed in stone

Craftsmanship: Kevin M. Conley has cut and set perhaps thousands of stone monuments, grave markers and celebratory plaques -- many of them in Baltimore.

July 12, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The 2,200-pound slab of marble being wrestled into place at the new garden of the Maryland Historical Society by Kevin M. Conley and his crew looks like a big, square tombstone, but what should be the epitaph reads "No. 3 Walters Public Baths 1905."

The handsome flagstone patio with a slim, blue, minimalist fountain -- the society calls it the Monument Street Garden -- is a kind of memorial park for fragments of a lost Baltimore.

The marble stone that Conley is setting came from a bathhouse long gone from Argyle Avenue in West Baltimore. Philanthropist William Walters, the namesake and benefactor of the art gallery, funded five public baths where Baltimoreans paid pennies to clean up from 1900 to 1959, when the last one closed.

The historical society garden also preserves a towering column from the grand colonnade of the Merchants Exchange building on South Gay Street, a masterwork by Benjamin H. Latrobe, who designed the Basilica of the Assumption and was one of the architects of the U.S. Capitol. The exchange was demolished nearly a century ago.

Included is a fragment from the ornate Baltimore Street facade of Horn & Horn cafeteria, where courthouse lawyers, City Hall politicians, and guys and gals from The Block gathered for nearly 70 years until it closed in 1977.

The headless female figure from a grave marker found at the old Udell Memorial Co. presides over the garden like a silent mourner for the city's fractured past.

Conley, 44, was a natural choice to place these pieces. A longtime Baltimore resident, he has helped cut and set perhaps thousands of monuments, memorials, grave markers, dedicatory tablets, celebratory plaques and tombstones for his family firm, Barre Monuments, which has been at the same spot on East Baltimore Street for 65 years.

Wielding a hammer and chisel, Conley carved the letters into the stone facade of Baltimore's main courthouse when it was named for Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. He cut the letters identifying the Embassy of Singapore in Washington. And he set the simple granite monolith of the 3rd Infantry Division memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, then carved the inscription and insignia.

"That was Audie Murphy's division," Conley says. Murphy was the most decorated U.S. soldier of World War II. "I didn't realize the 3rd Infantry Division was very well connected politically."

At the time he was working on the memorial, the 3rd had the largest number of veterans in Congress. Apparently, somebody important in the CIA had also served in the division during World War II. Limousines kept stopping by with congressmen and their aides checking his progress.

He used a pneumatic hammer to carve the motto "To God Be His Glory" at the entrance to the new addition at St. Mary's Seminary in Roland Park. The priest in charge said old stonecutters used a hand hammer.

" `That air hammer sure speeds things up, doesn't it?' he said. `Yes,' I said. `Some guy cutting this in with a hand hammer, it would have taken him two weeks. With me, it'll only take 12 days.'

"It still takes time. The rock is as hard today as it was 100 years ago."

When Archbishop William H. Keeler became cardinal of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Conley carved the coat of arms he received into a granite relief, which is set into the garden wall at the Basilica of the Assumption. The relief required that the "cardinalis" motto and ecclesiastic rank be in Latin.

"I had three different people check the Latin," he says. Then, he went home and asked his two daughters, who studied Latin at Institute of Notre Dame on North Aisquith Street, to check it. "I figured that if I screwed up on the cardinal's coat of arms, I was not only risking problems but probably eternal damnation as well."

He has inscribed grave markers for Comptroller William Donald Schaefer's mother, Tulullu; for Philip Goodman, who was briefly mayor of Baltimore; and for Irvin Kovens, the unparalleled political fund-raiser and kingmaker.

Conley cut the names into granite at the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Building of the Jewish Museum of Maryland on Lloyd Street. The carving is in English, but he reads and writes Hebrew, and he knew the Hebrew "aleph bet" before the English alphabet.

"My Irish-Catholic father taught me," he says. He grew up working side by side with his father at the family office and shop at 1630 E. Baltimore St., near Broadway.

Jordon Conley, a stonecutter from Hampden, and his wife, Veronica from East Baltimore, bought the 10-year-old company from Jordon Conley's boss on June 27, 1943. He took the name Barre from the Vermont granite town, and the Italian marble center of Bari.

"Kevin's been here since he was 2 weeks old," says his mother, who is known as "Ronnie." He grew up at Bank Street and Collington Avenue. His mother still lives there and often walks to work.

"I had an unusual childhood in that I was with my father every day," Conley says. His father died 21 years ago. "I still miss him."

When the Conleys took over the firm, Broadway and Baltimore Street was a dynamic, ethnically diverse neighborhood, where lots of Jewish people lived. The Anshei Sfard "shul" was around the corner, and the Talmud Torah boys Hebrew school and the Bais Yaakov girls school were a block away.

The Conleys cut many Hebrew tombstones and still do. Kevin has learned the Cyrillic alphabet so he can carve markers for Russian Jews who have settled in Baltimore. He remembers a friend came in while he was carving a Hebrew inscription.

" `You can read that?' he asked.

" `Yeah,' I said.

" `I can't.'

"I said, `A lot of people can't.'

" `Yeah, but I'm Jewish,' he said."

Pub Date: 7/12/99

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