'Green Stone' of Cardiff still has admirers


Ninety years after the discovery of a vein of green marble brought fame to the small northern Harford County town of Cardiff, the stone still commands a loyal - but dwindling - following.

The once-common marble that earned a place in American architectural history by gracing the interiors of national landmarks like the White House and New York's Empire State Building has not been quarried since 1982. Many people living in Harford County today aren't even familiar with the stone.

But to admirers like Sam Jones of Forest Hill, there will always be a special place in their hearts - and homes - for what locals will always call "the green stone."

"A friend of mine once said that if you're a real Harford Countian, you have a piece of it somewhere in the house," says Jones, who recently bought several large slabs that once decorated a bank in Pennsylvania.

He plans to use at least one of the slabs, each of which weighs around 300 pounds, as a custom table for his kitchen, adding to the pieces he has.

"I grew up with it and I've always been fond of it because it is a local stone, quarried by Harford County natives. And it's especially dear because it's no longer available," he said.

People familiar with the beauty of the polished stone say there is nothing else like it.

Widely known and prized since 1913, when a crew of men discovered it while dynamiting rocks for a road project in Cardiff, the stone was obviously unlike the gray slate for which the area was already renowned.

Initially, the rock was identified as green marble. In fact, it was really a kind of serpentine, an igneous rock distinct from marble. But because many hard rocks that can be polished are referred to commercially as marble, the name stuck, along with "Verde Antique" and green stone.

Adding to its appeal was the fact that it was the only marble of that shade in America, and Cardiff was one of only two domestic sources for it. The other green marble, a darker shade, is quarried in Vermont.

In 1929, the Maryland Green Marble Corp., part of a conglomerate based in New York, began extracting stone from a depth of 150 feet on an 18-acre parcel in Cardiff. Eventually, the quarry went down to 350 feet with tunnels that extended more than 1,000 feet under the town.

According to an account written by Albert Peele, who worked at the quarry from 1929 to 1942, the marble was used almost exclusively for interior work.

"Maryland Green Marble was chiefly used for trim and decorative purposes, such as base, door and window trim and pilasters, also floor tile," Peele wrote in his 1984 account of the quarry, which was donated to the Harford County Historical Society.

Almost overnight, it seemed, a great demand sprang up for the green marble. Buildings like the Empire State Building and the National Archives in Washington, both built in the 1930s, installed large quantities of green marble as baseboard and other decorative trim.

A June 1, 1960, article about the quarry in The Evening Sun noted that one of the company's employees, James Heaps, said they worked for three years to supply the stone for the Empire State Building.

The marble was also commonly found in banks, post offices and drugstores up and down the East Coast, where it added an air of formal distinction.

Harford County still has many public buildings that have green marble, including the old courthouse and the old post office in Bel Air, which now houses the Harford County Historical Society.

During the 1930s, in the quarry's heyday, the Maryland Green Marble Corp. employed several dozen men who descended deep into the Earth, quarried the stone and operated the heavy equipment that hoisted the enormous slabs to the surface, where they were sawed and polished.

Finished slabs were usually trucked to their destinations, but entire unfinished blocks were loaded onto one of the company's own railroad cars on a spur of the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad. From there they were shipped north to York or south to Baltimore, from which they went on to their final destinations.

The quarry's moneymaker was not polished marble, however: It was crushed marble chips known as "granito," which were used in terrazzo flooring. Granito, made from flawed blocks and scraps, was sold in 100-pound bags, at a cost of $13 a ton. By contrast, polished marble sold at $1.50 to $2.25 per square foot.

Demand was so high and the process so time-consuming that the quarry operated 24 hours a day. Local residents lived proudly with the constant noise.

"I grew up near the quarry, and I remember the sound of the gang saws putting me to sleep at night," says Don Robinson of Delta, Pa., just over the state line from Cardiff. "I also remember when they used dynamite to blast; occasionally it would break a window. I loved the place. It nearly broke my heart when it closed."

Green marble was commonly used in Cardiff and Delta homes. Robinson's mother, Sara, 82, recalls their house having a marble mantel and base, as well as marble slabs on either side of the front door. She still owns a green marble coffee table and a pair of bookends.

Local banks were also lavishly endowed with the stone, as were area churches and post offices. Frances Birley, whose husband, Glen, managed the quarry from 1953 to 1967, remembers the company donating the terrazzo floor that still graces the Slate Ridge Presbyterian Church.

"Every week when I see it, I think how good it still looks," she says.

By the 1960s, the quarry began to decline. Various factors played a role in its demise, including tastes that shifted away from the more formal look that marble represented. Around that time, plastic and other manmade materials began to replace marble. Formica, not green marble, was considered stylish in the 1960s.

Another factor was steeply rising transportation costs, especially once the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad halted its Baltimore-to-Whiteford run in 1967, leaving trucking as the only, and costlier, mode of transportation.

Profits for the slabs of finished marble disappeared entirely as the quarry struggled to operate with outdated equipment. Unlike at other stone quarries, which had modernized, the amount of time needed to quarry a slab of Cardiff marble in 1960 was no different than in 1930.

"The vertical cutting rate was about 3 inches in 10 hours," remembers Ray Warner, 72, who worked at the quarry from 1955-1976 and was its last plant manager.

"Being there with antique equipment, we did everything the hard way, including polishing by hand. We never upgraded."

Others say that the stone itself was to blame. Fluctuations in temperature from the bottom of the quarry to the surface often caused the stone to break, as did the sawing process. Frances Birley, 82, remembers that her husband used to say that he didn't care much for the product.

"He had customers who came in and complained about breakage. There was simply too much damage."

Peele, writing about the period from 1929 to 1942, noted another problem - that "the finished marble, particularly the polished stock after installation, developed efflorescence," a white residue.

Peele also commented elsewhere that the company was often "a borderline profit operation. For a profitable year, sales had to be good on both the marble and granito products. This combination only occurred three or four times during the thirteen years covered by this report," he wrote.

Still, the prestige and allure of the stone endures. The National Archives, where green marble was installed in the rotunda in the 1930s, recently purchased two enormous blocks of marble from the current owners of the quarry property, who did not wish to be identified. It plans to use the marble in a major renovation project, and was so intent on using the same marble that it went to extraordinary lengths to acquire the blocks.

The blocks, along with a few others, had been quarried several decades earlier and were still on the grounds. Despite the significant cost of renting a crane to hoist the blocks, which each weighed several tons, onto a truck and then transporting them to Tennessee, where they will be cut and polished, the consultant overseeing the project deemed it essential, for aesthetic as well as historical reasons.

"We looked at foreign sources, but we could not find anything that came close to the Cardiff marble," Marvin Shenkler explains. "And the Vermont marble was too dark."

Shenkler even went so far as to ask the White House, which installed green marble in the Green Room during the Truman administration, whether it would give up its own block of green marble that it had purchased as a backup some years ago.

"Now that there's no longer an opportunity to retrieve it, it becomes a problem to replace it," he says.

It will likely remain that way. Attempts in recent years to reopen the quarry have failed - because of the cost that, the owners say, could run to millions for new equipment alone.

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