Frankly fake but authentically Baltimore, the Formstone that swaths many a rowhouse may seem low-brow or even tacky to some.
But should it be illegal?
A proposed overhaul of the Baltimore's zoning code would do just that, banning the faux stone facades on any newly constructed rowhouses. While the city says this would upgrade neighborhoods, some see it as a slap at an endearing if downscale bit of Baltimoreana — akin to prohibiting Natty Boh at the corner bar or beehive hairdos at the beauty parlor.
"Formstone is really part of the legacy of Baltimore City, along with marble steps and painted screens," said Robert "Bob" Ibex, one of the last of the city's original Formstone masons. "I don't know why they would want to outlaw that."
Called "the polyester of brick" by filmmaker John Waters, the artificial stone swept through many working-class Baltimore neighborhoods in the post-World War II years. The brand FormStone was patented by Baltimorean L. Albert Knight in 1937 and eventually became so popular that all hand-sculpted siding in town came to be called generically by its name.
Masons like Ibex developed their own formulas of colored stone powder and sparkly flakes in the mix that they troweled onto countless homes. It served a practical purpose for some, waterproofing facades of soft, crumbling bricks. But it also offered a bit of glamour, and entire blocks of homeowners fell for the simulated stone described in advertisements as a "beauty treatment" for worn homes.
Perhaps no other city embraced the cladding as enthusiastically as Baltimore, where neighborhoods such as Highlandtown and Pigtown still sport Formstone coats of many colors. At its peak in the early 1950s, there were about two dozen companies in Baltimore that would cover homes in faux stone and brick — for around $315 per job, according to permit records.
Now, though, the city most fanatic about Formstone may ban its future use.
"Ludicrous," Waters said by email of the proposal.
In recent years, the surest sign that a neighborhood was going upscale was the amount of Formstone being stripped away, but Waters is among those who thought the fake facades were ready for a comeback.
"I thought by now, yuppies would be restoring original Formstone to their recently gentrified rowhouses," Waters said. "And as far as new Formstone? I'm all for it — positively postmodern."
But if the city's first zoning overhaul in 40 years is passed as it was introduced to the City Council in October, Formstone will never regain its former glory. Granted, it likely would have died off on its own because of the dearth of masons willing or able to apply it.
The 83-year-old Ibex, for one, is taking his formula for Formstone to the grave: "I would never tell anyone anything about the stone … not even my boys."
"Did Tiffany tell anyone how to make stained glass? And that's why Tiffany's so expensive today. Did the Egyptians tell anyone how they put the sphinxes up?" suggested Ibex, who bought the rights to the FormStone brand in 1963 from the Lasting Products Co., where Knight originated his mixture.
Ibex, who installed a Formstone facade as part of a permanent exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum, decided to keep operating under the name Dixie Stone, which he'd been using since the 1940s. He's still in business under that name and is booked into next year, mostly with framing doors in fake brick and repair jobs, he said.
The last time he was asked for the full Formstone treatment was three years ago, he said. Ibex threw out a price he thought was outrageous for the work — $3,500 — but the rowhouse owner didn't flinch, he said. It's too expensive to hire assistants, he said, and his two aging hands are not enough to sculpt a full rowhouse.
"I had no way to do it because I had no help," said Ibex, who declined the project. "But people would pay, still, to have that done."
Not long after Formstone's popularity peaked, parts of Baltimore began fighting back against its advance. Historic neighborhoods banned its installation, attempting to maintain their neighborhoods' original character. Then, in the late 1960s, a patchwork of localized zoning codes — called urban renewal plans — emerged in response to the city's lack of design standards for new construction.
Since the current comprehensive zoning law was instituted in 1971, the council has passed dozens of these "overlay" codes. There are now more than 70, mostly covering commercial areas, that dictate minimum design guidelines for new construction. When the new code passes, many of these patchwork plans can be eliminated because minimum design standards will be adopted for the whole city, said Tom Stosur, the city's planning director.
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.