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Formstone would be banned on new buildings under proposal

The hand-crafted home siding, started in Baltimore, is prohibited eight times in proposed code

December 01, 2012|By Steve Kilar and Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

Some of the renewal plans include restrictions on Formstone or prohibitions on its use on new business buildings. "Painting Formstone is permitted and encouraged" by the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello plan, while the Gay Street neighborhood near Johns Hopkins Hospital prohibits it.

Outright bans on its use in residential areas, though, are rare and limited to the most recent plans — for areas such as Oliver and Middle East that are targeted by the city for significant residential redevelopment.

Laurie Feinberg, head of the city's comprehensive planning program, said the city looked to these urban renewal plans, and how they addressed Formstone and other coverings such as aluminum and vinyl siding, when it launched a rewrite of the zoning code.

Feinberg acknowledged that the list of finishes that would be banned under the new code came together without deep contemplation.

Under the proposed zoning code, modular brick consistent "with Baltimore traditions" — a more expensive-looking finish — would be the only material allowed on the front and side facades of any new rowhouses built in Baltimore.

"There's really no good reason [for Formstone's inclusion], that's the honest truth," Feinberg said.

In addition to outlawing Formstone's use on new rowhouses, apartments, condo buildings and most commercial structures, the proposed code prohibits its use on additions to existing rowhouses.

"We really want people to invest in their homes," Feinberg said.

That's just what homeowners thought they were doing when they opted for a Formstone finish, said Charles Belfoure, an architectural historian and co-author of the book, "The Baltimore Rowhouse."

"Baltimore had a relatively high percentage of homeowners who were basically blue-collar workers, middle class, who were able to buy their rowhouses. That was their big investment," Belfoure said. "It was an aesthetic choice. They wanted them to look good, they were upgrading them when they added Formstone."

Belfoure said the ban seems "draconian," given that the tradition was largely dying out on its own as tastes change. "It's definitely a phase of Baltimore's architectural history that should be preserved," he said.

Baltimore filmmaker Skizz Cyzyk, who directed the 1997 documentary, "Little Castles: A Formstone Phenomenon," acknowledges that the faux facades are not universally beloved.

"I imagine there are parts of the city that don't like it, but this is what we're about," he said. "We should embrace it."

While the fake stone has never quite attained retro-hip status — there is no FormstoneFest even here in Baltimore — Cyzyk said he still gets several emails a month from people trying to locate a copy of "Little Castles." It's never been widely distributed, although it's part of the extras section of the European DVD of Barry Levinson's "Tin Men," Cyzyk said. Levinson, a Baltimore native, initially had his characters selling Formstone but thought that wouldn't translate beyond Charm City, so he armed them with aluminum siding instead, Cyzyk said.

Charlie Duff, an architectural historian and president of community development group Jubilee Baltimore Inc., inadvertently gave "Little Castles" its name, by describing homeowners who commissioned Formstone as making their houses resemble medieval fortifications.

A ban on Formstone is "not a real serious threat," he said, since almost no one supplies it and even fewer people seem to want it. Duff said he's "much more worried about aluminum siding," which still is widely available.

"I haven't done a whole building in nearly 10 years," said Randy Hensley, the owner of Herb's Form Stone & Stucco Inc., named for his father, Herbert Hensley — who passed along the art of Formstone. Hensley, 50, said most of his business now comes from repairing the thousands of homes throughout the region that are covered in the aging stuff.

If someone were to ask for a full Formstone treatment on their house, he said, he would charge about $10 per square foot. All of the supplies to create Formstone siding can be purchased at a large home improvement store — except for the sandy substance that gives the final product its characteristic glint, he said. That can be tough to find, Hensley said.

Duff, for one, has no nostalgia for the Formstone era, which he recalls as having a dulling effect on the look of neighborhoods. "Formstone was to Baltimore what communism was to Czechoslovakia," he said. "It put a pall of gray on an otherwise vivid place."

"If people feel passionately about preserving Formstone, then let's float the balloon of trying to get rid of it and see if people stand up and fight," Duff said. "If the younger generation likes Formstone, then they should at least be able to use it."

But the balloon has been floating for four years and so far no one has stepped up to challenge the proposed ban.

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