HARRISONBURG, VA (AP) Drive from James Madison University to downtown Harrisonburg and get a quick tour of the city’s bluestone architecture buildings made of indigenous limestone.
JMU’s Quad, St. Stephen’s United Church of Christ and the Municipal Building all feature the material that once was heavily used but recently has been unavailable. A number of other buildings along the way to downtown show the same visual signature in their foundations or walls.
Older sections of Lexington, Staunton and Winchester also highlight bluestone, rock quarried from a limestone belt that runs the entire length of the Shenandoah Valley.
Now, Bibb Frazier, vice president of Frazier Quarry Inc. in Harrisonburg, wants to revive bluestone architecture.
“You cannot buy it today,” Frazier said. “You can only find it by recycling limestone from old foundations, walls and barn banks.”
When it’s first quarried, it has a dark gray or blue tint hence the bluestone name. It weathers to a light gray.
JMU’s first two buildings, Jackson and Maury halls, were built in 1908 for a combined $40,000, according to Fred Hilton, the university’s centennial director.
Wampler Hall, built in 1994 with a facing of limestone imported from New York, a close match to the native bluestone, cost $4 million.
Despite the cost, the university “didn’t want buildings on the original quad to be anything but bluestone,” Hilton said.
From its earliest days, Valley residents built with stone because of its abundance. “A farmer had a lot of stone around, so he built a house of stone,” Frazier said.
Until the 1950s, very few buildings had concrete foundations — most were limestone, Frazier added.
But the labor-intensive nature of stone masonry and cheaper building materials such as concrete and brick doomed bluestone construction in the post-World War II economy.
“Over the past generation, the community has strayed from its roots,” Frazier said. “We want to make bluestone available in an economically viable manner.”
Frazier Quarry has invested more than $500,000 in its new Stonewall Division, which will produce Stonewall Grey, the Valley’s own bluestone.
In September, Frazier bought a new stone splitter, a hydraulic press with specially designed chisels.
The splitter takes a block of limestone — the big ones are approximately the size of a desk and weigh up to 2 tons — and aligns chisels top and bottom that apply as much as 300 tons of pressure to split the stone.
“The operators learn to read the rock, know where the grain is, where the rock wants to split,” Frazier said. “If it’s done right, it comes out as pretty as you please.”
The technology for the stone splitter has been in use since the 1970s. Its application to Frazier’s new splitter became prevalent in the 1990s. It makes splitting large blocks of limestone look easy.
The type of quarrying done a century ago was laborious, time consuming and dangerous, Frazier explained.
He began looking for a better way to split limestone while he was restoring an 1890s farmhouse in Cross Keys. He scoured the quarries and found suitable rocks, but couldn’t split them into useful sizes.
Out of that frustration, he purchased the new stone splitter and created the Stonewall Division at Frazier Quarry, adding five new jobs at the company.
“Stone is permanence,” Frazier said. “It’s part of this community’s legacy.”
He said the company has 100 tons of the new product on inventory and hopes to have as much as 100 more tons ready for the home and garden show this spring.
The new Liberty Park project already has made use of 30 donated tons of the Stonewall Grey limestone, Frazier said.
“We’re making it as fast as we can right now,” he said.
Frazier sounds like a man on a mission, but insists he wouldn’t have gone this far if he didn’t think it was economically viable. His company has invested a half-million dollars, research and management time in the project.
“But if there’s no supply, you can’t really prove that there’s a demand,” Frazier said. “We’ll make a return on our investment, and we’ll reintroduce bluestone to this generation in the Valley.”