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In defense of Formstone

If the unfortunate Hon-trademarking flap of 2010 wasn't enough to get Baltimore's beehive in a bunch, surely the news that city bureaucrats, without much thought about the matter, have proposed banning Formstone in new construction will do the trick.

Is Formstone a great aesthetic innovation? No. Was its proliferation several decades ago a failure of good taste? Maybe so. But if it was a failure, it was Baltimore's own. It was an affordable ornamentation, an expression of a blue collar optimism that things were on their way up and that our houses, even the modest attached variety, should reflect that faith in upward mobility. Like putting shag carpeting over hardwood floors, covering perfectly good brick with something artificial may seem odd, but it was, at heart, an expression of the instinct to improve upon what was given, to leave a mark more visible to the world than knotty pine in the basement.

And if it was, in the final analysis, tacky, Formstone does at least have the virtue of not being some pre-fab schlock. It is hand-made (dare we say, artisanal?) schlock. The people who clad so many Baltimore rowhouses in Formstone, and there are still a few of them around, did so with proprietary formulas and secret techniques. Every Formstone facade is different, and that is surely a mitigating factor in its favor. A painted screen door would only be unforgivable if it was mass-produced, and likewise, Formstone has something over aluminum or vinyl siding.

We support Baltimore's effort to overhaul its zoning code, a process that will provide uniformity, predictability and flexibility for developers large and small. And the impulse that led to the proposed Formstone ban was a good one: a desire to maintain high standards for new construction in the city. In general, that promotes rising property values and neighborhood cohesion.

Such an idea isn't new or unique to Baltimore, nor is the prospect that it could run counter to the municipal identity. At various times in the last decade, Baltimore County has considered design standards that would ban "panhandle lots" — bizarre configurations in which someone builds a new house in the backyard of another — and the practice of putting brick on the front of a house and vinyl on the sides and back. Talk about tacky. County planners at one point even went after the holy of suburban holies: the cul-de-sac. Beloved by families with kids, the cul-de-sac is derided by urban planners for promoting sprawl, traffic congestion and civic disconnectedness. The threat of Formstone seems tame by comparison.

As a practical matter, it probably makes no difference whether Baltimore bans Formstone in new construction. It is a fashion whose time has long past, and hardly anybody knows how to install it anymore. Years of public hearings about the proposed zoning code have gone by without anyone raising a peep about Formstone one way or the other.

All the more reason, then, to leave the ban out of the new zoning code. Formstone is not exactly a clear and present danger. But in its own small way, it represents something honorable in our heritage, and it doesn't deserve the stigma of official civic opprobrium.

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