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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Renovation of the Library Stone Wall

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, June 03, 2012

Every 20 years or so, we have the stone wall around the front yard of the Main Library re-pointed, or as others call it, “tuck pointed.”

 

The mortar joints between the large stones open with time, and allow water to penetrate the wall, which can eventually loosen and damage its structure.

 

That work has just been completed, and “the old stone wall again looks fine” were the words of someone in the library a couple weeks ago.

 

The stone wall has provided a border for the front yard of the library since 1902, and is generally in good condition considering its age.

 

It was constructed by the Floto Brothers firm for a total cost of $ 1,840 amid lively discussions of the options.

 

Floto Brothers joined Bernard Swartz to form Swartz, Floto, & Co. in 1874, and assumed full control of the stone contracting company in 1887.

 

They operated several quarries in the county, with the main site being along Stony Hollow, today’s University Blvd.

 

Floto Bros. was one of the bidders for the library project when bids were received by Architect Alden and Harlow on May 21, 1900.  The bid was awarded to the lowest bid which was received from the John H. Trimble & Co. of Allegheny City, Pa. for $ 54,795.

 

The problem at hand was that Andrew Carnegie had provided only $ 50,000 for the new library, and even with his additional donation of $ 12,000 funds were extremely tight.

 

The subject of the “boundary wall” was debated at each meeting, with Trimble’s additional price being $ 3,975 and Floto’s being $ 3,156.  Other firms exceeded $ 4,000 for the stone wall.

 

A change to a brick wall was discussed and rejected.  Some of the stonework on the building was switched to a less-expensive terra cotta, and all contractors were asked to submit new bids for the stone wall.

 

It is unclear what parts were cut from the specifications, but all were told to submit bids of no more than $ 1,850.  Floto’s bid was $ 1,840 and they were awarded the contract.

 

This year’s repair included a reconstruction of two stones along Slack Street whose surface had broken off and collapsed about 4 years ago.

 

The plan was to lift the stones out of the wall and turn them around, but the back side of the stones was not “dressed” and looked rather ragged.

 

Instead, different stones taken from a reconstructed part of the wall were inserted and the wall looks like the day it was built.

 

Well, not quite, as the surface of the stones are now black with carbon soot from 110 years of the elements, and preservation experts recommend against any attempt at cleaning the dark color.

 

That dirty surface color actually protects the stones from the elements, and retains the sharp, crisp façade intact complete with its tooling marks from the quarry.

 

The repair to the wall allowed us to “see” the inside construction of the stone wall.

 

It sits on a crushed stone base, no concrete footer.  Behind the stones are a jumble of stone fragments that allows water to move past the wall, like a French drain.

 

Some pieces are from the finishing of the stones, others appear to be pieces of the Sarratt House that was demolished for the construction of the library building.  Bricks from the house were reused in the construction of the library building’s interior brick walls.

 

To me, the amazing part of the stone wall is the 3 bollards along 4th St., the rounded stone corners that allow the wall to “turn” directions.

 

Chisel marks are still visible on their rounded surface, and people have estimated their weight to be between 1 and 5 tons.

 

We had some of the “open joints” on the lower part of the library building re-pointed, it is assumed that another contractor did the stone work on the building itself.

 

Today we use inserts into the forms of concrete to make it appear to be stones, but the mastery of building with rusticated stone seems to be gone.

 

I am pleased that the library still has the Floto Bros. wall to show the work of the past.