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.
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.
Although the proposed zoning code is nearly 350 pages long and will change the zoning designation of about seven of every 10 acres of Baltimore's land, most of it has been accepted by the public without controversy. More than 150 people attended the Planning Commission's first public hearing about the code on Thursday, but few criticized the zoning bill.
That's because the proposed code submitted to the City Council already has been extensively reviewed by the public and revised by planning department staff.
The prohibition on Formstone has been in the zoning overhaul since its earliest incarnation, Feinberg said, and no one made a peep about the ban in the four years that drafts circulated.
Still, there are those who thought Formstone would be forever.
"I think people should be able to do with their houses what they want to do," said Aado Vaigro, 83, whose Modern Stone Inc. was one of Ibex's chief competitors. Vaigro started applying his own brand of Formstone in 1950 and said he closed about three years ago.
"It was a lot of hard work," Vaigro said. "You put it on right, it stayed there for 50 years — or better."
Proposed zoning sections that prohibit the use of Formstone
Formstone, the hand-sculpted building facade that was invented and popularized in the Baltimore region, would be banned from use by the city's proposed zoning code overhaul. All front and side facades of new rowhouses would need to be "modular clay brick," in colors "consistent with Baltimore traditions" if the new zoning code were approved. Administrative exceptions to these design standards will be considered.
Infill construction in coordinated rowhouse groups: Formstone would be prohibited on new homes built among rowhouses that were "originally designed and developed as a single, coordinated rowhouse development," even if the existing rowhouses are covered in formstone.
New rowhouses in noncoordinated rowhouse groups: Formstone would be prohibited from siding any new rowhouse that is built among rowhouses that do not match ("non-coordinated rowhouse groups").
Additions to existing rowhouses: Formstone would be banned from use on upper-floor additions to existing rowhouses, often called "doghouses" or "pop-ups," even if the rowhouse itself is covered in formstone.
Multifamily residential buildings: Newly built apartment or condo buildings, or those undergoing substantial rehabilitation, would be prohibited from using Formstone siding.
Commercial zoning districts: Formstone would be prohibited from use on new construction and substantial rehabilitations in nearly all areas zoned for commercial use.
Office-industrial and bioscience campus zoning districts: Formstone would be banned from use in areas zoned for large "architecturally coordinated" office developments and lands set aside for bioscience research and development.
Light industrial zoning districts: Formstone would be prohibited in zones designated for industrial uses that are "low-intensity" manufacturing, or research and development facilities with "little to no outside impacts."