Ellen Day Hale painting

As we face all the drilling and (soon) blasting of the ledge to accommodate the new septic system and buried power lines, granite and its sheer stubbornness keep coming to mind. Howlets is built almost entirely of the stone on which it sits. When the house was built in 1911, the stone was quarried from what was to become the basement (surface ledge extraction method) and a quarry directly behind the house (pit quarry extraction method). The walls are double in depth, meaning that the stone that is on the outside is not the stone that appears on the inside. In other words, nuclear blast strong. A good thing, as the Seabrook  power plant sits just across Ipswich Bay. While Howlets was being built, Ellen Day Hale, the painter who built Howlets, set up an easel and painted the work in progress. The painting just hints at the massive undertaking. In the painting, there are seven masons at work on the foundation, each wearing a hat — broad-brimmed hats, newspaper boy-style caps, and (in the case of the crane operator) a kind of scull cap. Millinery fashion at the job site.

Hundred year marks

To cut granite into the desired shape truly takes an artist’s touch. There is a grain that runs through granite which dictates the way in which it will cleave when “cut.” The stone mason eyes and feels the stone to find the grain. To the undeveloped eye (mine), the stone looks like a big freckled blob that just sits there defying you. Just picking it up to move it is a backbreaking task, let alone trying to shape it into a piece that will fit snugly against another. A plug-and-feather method of splitting the stone was most likely employed. A series of holes is drilled into the stone along the “fault” line (an invisible version of the San Andreas fault) and then feathers driven into those holes to split the stone. The name “feather” for a tool used to split stone is ironic and perfect. The granite facade of Howlets bears the marks that the plug and feather method leaves behind. The brute strength and delicate touch to work the stone brings to mind a Sumo wrestler performing a ballet, beautifully.

There are some additional stone features at Howlets that are subtly elegant. The window sills are made of granite and each one has a slight cant to the sill to allow rain water and melting snow to drain away from the window frame. This detailing is normally seen in wood, which sculpts to the hand a bit easier than stone. The lines are even and straight with an architectural block detail at the end of each sill.

Heavy art

Same marks, eight months oldAt our own house Grey Gardens, we recently had a back piece made in order to add water spouts for a long abandoned water trough that was on the property. The marks left by the cleaving process eight months ago on the back piece are the same marks as the stone at Howlets, made 100 years ago. The water trough itself, with an engraved date of 1862, is made from one huge piece of granite  about the size of a large bathtub. There are no plug and feather marks on the trough, as they were removed with a chisel. It resembles a finished  piece of furniture, all of granite.

I take some satisfaction in the fact that Cape Ann’s glorious stone work will be here long after the nuclear age has passed into history.

Click on any photo to enlarge.

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