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Marble steps reused as gathering place

Alice Johnson noticed the checker boards that recently popped up behind her house, a neat brick rowhouse in the Barclay neighborhood of Baltimore.

"People will definitely use them," she said. "I play. I wish I could play chess, too."

She should have time to learn. The boards have been etched permanently into 1,000-pound slabs of marble in a new community courtyard.

The stones are salvaged steps from several area houses, and the artist who placed them in the courtyard hopes they become a new kind of Baltimore front steps — where urban dwellers have long gathered, told stories and played games.

The marble was saved by Telesis Corp., which began construction in 2010 on an $85 million project to rehabilitate and rebuild vacant city-owned homes, in an effort to bring new life to an area adjacent to the Station North arts district.

The company had contacted an artist at the Maryland Institute College of Art about reusing the stone from the Beaver Dam quarry in Cockeysville. The quarry supplied stone for many of the marble steps in Baltimore, as well as for more prominent projects, but is now used primarily as a swimming hole.

Marble from front steps is often lost when properties are overhauled, and new houses tend to use brick or cement for new steps, said Sebastian Martorana, a former MICA student and current adjunct professor, and the professional sculptor contacted by the school for the project. Martorana previously carved art from marble steps, sometimes given and sometimes found, and plans to continue doing it.

For this project, he said Telesis spent thousands of dollars, a good portion of it to move the huge slabs — which are 44 inches and 54 inches long and up to 48 inches wide.

Catherine Stokes, senior project manager for Telesis, said the company wanted to keep the marble in the neighborhood.

"Redevelopment is an important balance of old and new, building on and adding to the community's historic fabric," she said.

There wasn't time, however, to sculpt something out of them, with the community space about to open for public use. There also weren't houses immediately identified that could use some new steps, said Martorana, who then pitched reusing them as benches and game tables — which Stokes already has called "a great success."

"They serve as a place to hang out and sit," Martorana said. "Baltimore has a history of chess and checkers clubs. And if no one is playing a game, they can be used as coffee tables. They are cross-generational."

Martorana spent two months in his shop in South Baltimore, Atlantic Custom Carving, cleaning the marble, though not so much that the century-old slabs would look new. He patched holes made for railings and sandblasted the checkerboard squares just deep enough to define the lines from the neighboring squares.

He tinted every other square black and had the slabs moved by forklift to a community gathering spot among the new houses. There were epoxied and mortared together in place atop a brick patio and next to raised garden beds. Tall lamps were installed overtop for evening play.

The artist, who lives a couple of blocks from the site, hopes to bring his young son over to enjoy the courtyard.

He also hopes the benches will attract other young people, maybe teams from schools, and maybe others too young for the basketball games regularly played on nearby courts. He said he hopes they will also become a place for older people to gather and maybe teach neighbors to play chess.

Wanda Crawford, who passed through the courtyard on her way to her sister's house Sunday, said she thought they'd be a hit in the neighborhood.

"People will love it," she said. "They're beautiful. That took some talent."

And, she added, "It's something to do. There's nothing to do here now."

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