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Formstone Lives Even as many houses are shedding their fake fronts, Formstone is finding its way onto others.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

By all accounts, Aado Vaigro shouldn't have been up on the scaffolding.

It wasn't because the temperature threatened to crack 100 degrees, nor was it because the 68-year-old was stepping between buckets and trowels on shaky planks three stories in the air.

It was because he was installing Formstone, the fossil of fake house fronts.

In the 1990s, the working words in restoration are natural brick and exposed beams -- not the glittery faux stone that has been giving homeowners intent on rehabbing so much trouble.

These days, people go to great lengths and expense to rip down the "flamingo pink" and "swimming pool blue" cement casing to get to the red brick hidden underneath. Removing Formstone can increase a row home's property value by $10,000, said Ron Zimmerman Jr., a Realtor in Federal Hill, a neighborhood that has been shucking its Formstone image.

Whether fair or not, Formstone has come to be seen as a warning sign of crumbling frontage underneath.

"I have customers who won't go into a Formstone house," Zimmerman said.

Even in a world of such economic forces and peer pressure to rip it off, there are still a few Formstone lovers to keep Vaigro and a shrinking number of Formstone masons in business.

These recent converts to the 50-year-old fashion statement are responding to the same market forces that made Baltimore the Formstone capital of the world. Formstone is a long-lasting, maintenance-free building material.

Before its inventor, Albert Knight, patented the idea of covering buildings in cement in 1936, Baltimore homeowners were trapped in an endless cycle of painting their brick fronts. A lost trade itself, people known as "stripers" would paint brick homes, painstakingly drawing in white lines as mortar joints.

Dean Krimmel, of the Baltimore City Life Museums, said Formstone was the answer to all that painting, and made a home appear cared for. "All the conditions were right for it," he said.

By the 1950s, when the patent for Formstone, manufactured by Lasting Products Co. on South Franklintown Road, expired, the boom already had swept way beyond Baltimore. The Formstone Co., which taught the trade to masons ran the crews and distributed the products, had grown into a nationwide franchise. Its results can be seen along the East Coast, in Colorado and in California. But here in Baltimore, there was nothing less than a marketing phenomenon going on block by block.

"I think more than any other material in Baltimore, Formstone transmogrified this city," said Eric Holcomb, a city planner for the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. "It didn't just change it physically, but it changed its look. All of a sudden you have old brick buildings, stained by coal and industrial smoke, getting a new, clean look."

The demand was so intense that Formstone treated the city as an assembly line.

Specialized crews would go out, one setting up the scaffolding,the next hanging the wire netting that held the Formstone and still another sculpting brick out of the cement, according to Vaigro, who worked with the company.

Sometimes, Vaigro recalled, a crew would set up on one block, not even using a salesman to gather orders. Rather, the work crew just waited until the neighbors came up and requested a job. If a resident came from the next block over, Vaigro said, he'd be told to wait his turn.

Soon, about 20 smaller companies had sprung up. Many of them owned by former Formstone employees, said Vaigro, who went on to form Modern Stone. Each company developed its own style. There were Perma-stone, Rx Stone, Bond Stone and Romanstone, many of which still stand along the street scape as distinct as geological epochs. Some used different shades of colors. Others have different mortar cuts. Some used geometric shapes. Most companies stuck to Formstone's method of carving the bricks with a trowel right on the wall. A few used a mold.

"I can tell you who did what job. It's like a fingerprint," said Robert Ibex, who started Dixie Stone in the 1940s and is one of the few working Formstone masons left.

Trouble came for the Formstone Co. in the 1960s, according to Fred Schruefer, who started with Lasting Products in 1949. Schruefer said customers started cashing in on their lifetime guarantee when the wire meshing holding the stone began to rust, forcing Formstone Co. out of business in the late 1960s. He was with Lasting Products as a plant manager until it went bankrupt in 1972.

Today, the hand-sculpted brick tradition is kept alive by a few masons such as Ibex and Vaigro, who say they won't stop until their health gives out.

Last week, David DeMaine of Water Oak Road in Ridgeleigh, just south of Baynesville, hired Ibex, who replaced the wood molding around the door with a white Formstone frame that now stands flush against the brick house.

DeMaine, who grew up in upstate New York and never saw Formstone until he moved to Baltimore in 1988, said he didn't like the contemporary choice of wood or aluminum door moldings.

As DeMaine walked through his suburban brick rowhouse neighborhood of neat small lawns, he realized that some of the Formstone trim on half of the houses had been there for decades.

Formstone seemed like the obvious choice.

"It makes the rowhouse look classic," he said. DeMaine took a chance and went door to door to see if he could get the name of a stonemason. Not only did he find a phone number, but he also met neighbors who recently had their doorways done.

After discovering that Formstone was cheaper than the alternative, he hired Ibex.

"It's really an art how he cuts," said DeMaine. Down the street, Bill Gelston, 49, and his son Nick, 19, took a seat on their front steps on a slow afternoon in the middle of a heat wave.

For Gelston, his Formstone doorway is a happy ending to **TC home-improvement nightmare. Two years ago, he took down the old crumbling Formstone and put up some odd shutters and a deluxe storm door that never fit the door jamb. One day the wind just came along and ripped it off its hinges.

Gelston got his inspiration from Ibex's work across the street. His wife, Lynn, went on a mission calling up stonemasons, many of whom said they didn't know what Formstone was, much less know anyone who could do the work.

Finally she tracked down Ibex.

When Gelston met Ibex, he was amazed to learn that he was in his 60s, but was further impressed with how quickly he worked.

When Gelston left for work, he gave Ibex his money.

"He said, 'How do you know I won't leave without finishing,' Gelston recalled.

"I said, 'I know you won't.' You just knew he was the kind of man you could trust."

Meanwhile, Nick got a chance to see Ibex work.

"He would take a blob and make a rock out of it," Nick Gelston said.

But the finishing touches didn't come from Ibex. Gelston pointed to two impressions in the white Formstone. A 2-year-old teetered to the site and pressed his fingers into the wet cement.

The Gelstons walked past a few houses to Gene Wheeler's home, which got the royal treatment from Ibex.

Wheeler has the white granite-like border around the door with a keystone top. Above the doorway, Ibex pressed a mold of a carriage driver.

Unlike any of the other homes on the block, Wheeler got her steps, front porch and base walls done in a pink faux stone.

Wheeler said that when it came time to finish her steps, she had no idea what to do. Ibex took her on a tour in his truck showing her some of his Formstone work.

"I said 'OK, I'll take it,' " she recalled.

Ibex finished the job by replacing her basement window with glass block for free.

"Who does things like that anymore," she said.

Formstone may well on its way to extinction, but there is an afterlife for faux stone. It's called Brickcoat.

Employing the same technique as with Formstone, Vaigro carves bricks in globs of colored cement, the same way he shaped the pastel fake fieldstone.

Brickcoat, Vaigro said, is designed to look like brick.

"The trouble is when we put it on, people don't look for us anymore," he said. "They look for a bricklayer. That's how close it is."

Lately, Vaigro's work has been appearing on gentrified homes in areas such as Fells Point.

Many times the Brickcoat is for long-term residents who can't afford to repoint or rebrick homes that have been deteriorating under the Formstone.

For years Geraldine Stylc, 53, of Hull Street in Locust Point has been saving to get her beloved but cracked Formstone removed. In its place would go Vaigro's Brickcoat.

Stylc was around when Formstone fever swept through her neighborhood. Only a few homes kept a local "striper" in the business of painting bricks.

"In the mid-1950s it was, 'Oh so and so is getting Formstone,' and you'd go down there and watch them slap it on," she said.

The last time she saw someone getting Formstone in her neighborhood was 15 years ago -- a woman had her back wall done -- and even then it was an oddity.

Then, on Fort Avenue she saw two older workers setting up as if they were about to do Formstone but instead put up fake brick.

"I couldn't believe how nice it looked and I kept my eye on that house through the years and it stayed beautiful," she said.

For her, Brickcoat was the obvious choice.

As she watched her Formstone come tumbling down, she pointed to the irony of trading one faux stone for another. "It's the sign of the times," she said. "They used to be called rowhouses, now they're town homes."

In the middle of the heat wave, Vaigro was getting ready to climb high on the scaffolding. Stylc had left him a pitcher of water in the doorway. Behind him on the Formstone street, he recognized one of the homes he did 20 years ago. A few houses up was his Brickcoat work that he'd done more recently.

Two men came out of a corner bar and watched him. One, Tom Bloom, had two homes done in Brickcoat.

"It's an art," Bloom said as he admired Vaigro's work.

Pub Date: 7/27/97

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