Walking down any street in New York City, even a casual observer cannot help but be impressed by the varieties of granite and marble in the facades, lobbies, and even the sidewalks of the city. But these seemingly mute stones speak: They are the pages of earth history, and written in them is also the history of the people who quarried, shaped, and erected them and the architects that chose them…. This 600-million-year-old material retain[s] in its mineralogy and structure the record of its origin deep in the crust of the earth and subsequent events of continental collisions and monument building.
—Sidney Horenstein, geologist and Environmental Educator Emeritus, American Museum of Natural History, speaking on Stony Creek granite
It begins with a tink, then a tunk, then silence. A held breath. Then: a sound like Rice Krispies in milk. A crack splinters across the surface of the stone, imperceptible at first, a wink of the mica. But as the cleft grows, the rock crackles and pops, the pressure of the wedge displacing dust, then flakes, then grains—and finally a slab of granite cleaves from the solidity and falls.
The simple machine used to cut this piece of granite—a series of “plug and feather” sets, or an iron wedge fitted between a pair of shims, placed in a drilled hole, and hammered in a calibrated sequence—is 2.6 million years old, from ancient Egypt. As the wedge is driven into the hole, the two iron sleeves distribute its pressure deep into the rock. One must tune one’s ear to the changing tones of the metal and the rock to make a clean, straight cut.
The rock, known as Stony Creek granite, is even older. Six hundred million years ago, molten rock rose to the earth’s surface, cooled, and solidified, forming igneous rocks. With continental drift, this fluid mass of variegated granite gneiss wound up along a six-mile stretch of the Connecticut shoreline just east of New Haven. Though granite is common throughout the United States, the swath in this area is unique for its coarse, mottled grain and veined “flow structure”: the way black biotite and magnetite moved through the quartz and feldspar.
According to the commemorative book Flesh and Stone: Stony Creek and the Age of Granite, its earth-toned color was thought to “humanize” the imposing neoclassical architecture popular in New York City in the late 1800s and early 1900s. That characteristic—in addition to its durability and the proximity of the quarry to New York City—made Stony Creek granite the material of choice for many turn-of-the-century architects. (Much of the stone we see today, as in countertops, is in fact not natural stone at all but a composite: an engineered stone.) Today, about 80 percent of the quarry’s business still comes from New York City, much of it for restoration work to create material continuity between new and historical structures.
From the rock hewn out of this giant hole in the ground, some of the greatest monuments of New York City rise into the sky. Among other landmarks, granite from this area forms the bases of Grand Central Terminal, the George Washington and Brooklyn Bridges, and the Statue of Liberty, as well as 550 Madison (the former AT&T Building), Macy’s, Bellevue Hospital, and the floors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In restorations, it appears in buildings at Columbia University; on the sidewalks of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; and at the shoreline of the Battery.
Right before Thanksgiving, I took a tour of Stony Creek Quarry with Darrell Petit, a sculptor working in collaboration with the quarry. In a buffalo-plaid shirt and NYC Parks baseball cap, he has rough hands that speak to the more than thirty years he has spent sculpting and working at the quarry in all capacities. But his stalwart appearance belies his eloquence about not only geological history and quarrying techniques but also “the speculative aspect” of the work and material. As Darrell speaks, he often gazes into the distance, past the twinkling mounds of rubble and the pit’s jagged cliffs.
Darrell was born in Montreal (his last name is pronounced either “PET-it” or “puh-TEE,” depending on which side of the border you’re on), and he first visited the quarry in 1990, after pursuing degrees in urban studies, architecture, and sculpture. After receiving a commission, he visited Stony Creek to buy some granite. Once he arrived, however, he realized how disassociated he was from his material—and he decided to stick around. Three decades later, he wields the same tools—sledgehammers and torches and drills—while shaping his own art. Darrell keeps an eye on the rock face as it is quarried and divines the shapes of future sculptures.
Inspired by the works of Isamu Noguchi, among others, his work plays with interdependence and balance, gravity and connection. Much as architects sought out the human quality in Stony Creek’s pink granite, Darrell seeks out the inner and surface expression of each block of stone and plays with how those qualities change with the viewer’s position. “Working at that elemental state—and understanding what it is to go into the earth to secure the material for building purposes or sculptural purposes—was a transformative event in my life,” he said in a 2005 interview for Stone World magazine. “I think before that, I probably would have understood the material as surface, which is unfortunately a great problem right now in the world of architecture. When you experience the quarry and you walk into the earth, your whole consciousness is affected.” His sculptures have been shown in Socrates Sculpture Park and Riverside Park in New York City, at Storm King Art Center upstate, as well as in Japan, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Norway, and Egypt—arguably the birthplace of his trade.
In Darrell’s pickup truck, we bumped along a maze of dirt roads into the bottom of the quarry. The shelves rose around us in angles of light and shadow. In contrast to the staccato of hammering, the property thrums with the sounds of mechanical operations. The occasional dynamite blast sends a puff of dust from the clifftop, and the whir of a drill boring into the rock ricochets off the walls and ripples the pools. A truck trundles boulder-size rocks from the drill site and dumps them into a pile; these will be used for shoreline riprap or landscaping. Conveyor belts rumble and churn as they sort and spit out smaller rocks into piles of pebbles and silica dust, which pave pathways and remineralize farmland.
At the height of quarrying in the area, roughly from 1870 to 1900, there were about two dozen operations along the Connecticut shore; Stony Creek is the only one left, and Darrell estimates that the remaining fifty-five acres have about another century before they run out of granite (also, the quarry area is limited by a surrounding land trust). In the old days, rocks moved by train from the quarry pit to the nearby shore, where they were transported by boat across Long Island Sound. Most of the workers were immigrants with families, and a tight-knit, generally assimilated community formed in the Branford area, though accidents and silicosis from inhaled rock dust often shortened workers’ lives. With a rusty derrick crane extending over it and walls stained with the hieroglyphics of past operations, one of the historic quarries sits adjacent to the current pit, which was opened in 1984.
In essence, the process of quarrying involves removing layers of surface rock and soil to get to the rock beneath, then using tools—such as hydraulic and pneumatic drills, jet channeling torches, explosives, and saws with diamond-encrusted blades—to free large blocks of stone from the bedrock.
The idea is to look for “solidities”: blocks of stone with naturally occurring fissures, known as seams (vertical) and beds (horizontal), that leave “benches,” rectilinear shelves that are exposed as sections of the rock face are removed. The stone is easiest to cut along its rift (horizontal proclivity) and hardest to cut across its grain (vertical proclivity). Drilling creates a corduroy surface; jet torching creates ripples and dark streaks; and saws create a smooth face.
The optimal quarry block dimensions—recognized as the worldwide standard—are 10 x 6 x 4 feet and about twenty-four tons.
Skilled quarriers can “read the rock”—by sight or even by touch—to find these natural rifts and proclivities. This quarry is fortunate to have them on a large scale, which is partly why its granite has ended up in so many grand New York City buildings and monuments.
Once the initial fissure is created, rubber or metal pillows are inserted and filled with air or water to slowly expand it. After the slab separates, an armed machine clutches the top and lowers it to the ground. These solidities are then cut to the desired size for a given project, often by hand, using the plug-and-feather technique.
To Darrell, quarrying is “a blend of technology, human intervention, and collaboration with natural materials, using interpretation and intuition.” He decries the “giddiness” around technological innovation and the focus on the two-dimensionality of stone. In his ideal world, all the architects and firms that use Stony Creek granite would visit the quarry “to start the engagement and understanding of a project” at the source, and “to have the experience at the quarry inform the clients” rather than the clients blindly imposing their will on the stone. “As the origin of the material, you are in a way the roots of the project,” Darrell says. “We want to tell our clients, ‘We are open for your connection.'”
He notes that, ironically, the more advanced quarrying technology becomes, the more design trends gravitate toward the stone’s organic, tactile surface. Architects might request different surface qualities for different projects. For the Temple of Dendur, for example, architects Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo designed stone’s the customed honed finish, which had an absorbent, contemplative quality. For the restoration of its museum’s sidewalks, Cooper Hewitt requested granite with grit to prevent slipping. And for the approach to the Statue of Liberty Museum, partner North Carolina Granite preserved and enhanced the natural crystal vibrancy of Stony Creek Granite to create a connection with Lady Liberty’s pedestal, which in the 1880s was sourced from a Stony Creek–area quarry.
As far back as the Renaissance, sculptors engaged in this process of cutting stone and seeing its nature revealed by light. As described in an abridged version of Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy: “Michelangelo rose in the dark, in order to be in the garden at dawn. He knew that it was the first rays of sun that revealed the truth about marble. Quality that could survive the earliest sun would be intact when night fell…. [He] picked up hammer and chisel. Tensions within him fell away with each falling chip… These metal tools clothed him in their own armor.”
Darrell recently had a “sensory deprivation chamber” built by his wife, architect Naomi Darling, in a modified, elevated shipping container with a panoramic view of the quarry. In this windowless, wood-paneled space, he can decompress from the intensity of the work. Back in 1999, when Stony Creek was shut down for a few months, Darrell was able to spend more time on site in the absence of workers and machinery. Now, as then, he needs time to listen to the quarry’s stillness, and perhaps hear the whispers of future sculptures in the rock.
I am indebted not only to Darrell Petit for his wealth of knowledge but also to the book Flesh and Stone: Stony Creek and the Age of Granite, edited by Deborah Deford and published in 2000 for the Stony Creek Granite Workers Celebration.