Old-school tradition: Building the Hilltop one stone at a time

If you look carefully at the buildings on the Hilltop Campus — really carefully, not just with a passing glance as you head to lunch — you’ll notice aspects of the design and architecture that make the University unique.

Workers from Leonard Masonry Inc. prepare the facade of the Earth and Planetary Sciences Building for additional stonework a combination of granite and limestone to mirror the University's older buildings on campus.
Workers from Leonard Masonry Inc. prepare the facade of the Earth and Planetary Sciences Building for additional stonework — a combination of granite and limestone to mirror the University’s older buildings on campus.

Some of the red granite blocks still show the drill holes where dynamite was inserted years ago in the quarries. Other blocks and stones have intricate carvings on them. And still other buildings and walls look as if they were thrown together with remnants and leftovers of stone.

While it makes for a picturesque setting, it also can be a headache when erecting new buildings to look like old buildings made of granite that started forming millions of years ago.

When Leonard Masonry Inc. of St. Louis was asked to put up a building nearly 10 years ago, company President Jeff Leonard and Project Manager Brad Kasten set out to find the closest match possible.

They didn’t have far to go.

“A long time ago, because of transportation back in 1800s, they really had to localize their building materials,” Leonard said. “So we started looking within about a 200-mile radius of St. Louis to find some place that was probably used, and we found this quarry, called Missouri Red Quarry, in Ironton, Mo.”

After bringing some samples of the granite found to the University in 1992, the ball started rolling for Leonard Masonry — and has kept rolling at a steady pace. Of the past 10 granite and limestone buildings put up on campus, Leonard has built nine of them.

But it’s not just a case of hacking out the rock and throwing up a building. It’s much, much more involved than that.

About 1.5 billion years ago, hot magma from underground volcanoes cooled, forming coarsely crystalline red granite. Granite is an igneous rock that is composed of four minerals: quartz, feldspar, mica and usually hornblende.

A stonemason often has to craft the granite by hand to achieve the
A stonemason often has to craft the granite by hand to achieve the “cabbage head,” or rounded, look of the stone.

Because it hardens deep underground, it cools very slowly. This allows crystals of the four minerals to grow large enough to be easily seen by the naked eye.

The oldest granite quarry in the state opened near Graniteville in 1869. Granite taken from the site furnished the stone for the Eads Bridge and the cobblestone streets of St. Louis.

Other quarries north of Elephant Rocks State Park supplied the turned columns in the front porch of the governor’s mansion in Jefferson City.

The same forces that produced the Ozark Mountains created the rocks in Elephant Rocks State Park.

So, when the Leonard Masonry people first headed down to Ironton, they figured they were on the right track.

“We did some research, went down to Ironton and brought some samples up,” Leonard said. “Then we took some (University) people down there. And I think they were really pleased with the samples.

“We were talking to a person in the quarry who said he wasn’t positive the granite was the same, but said, ‘It’s damn close, and if I was a betting man, I would have bet that’s where the original stone was taken from.'”

But the fun is just beginning.

Traveling rock show

After ordering 10,000 or 20,000 cubic feet of granite from the quarry, the evolution from old rocks that geologists study to a new, state-of-the-art building begins in earnest.

The most recent buildings Leonard Masonry worked on are Uncas A. Whitaker Hall for Biomedical Engineering (background) and the Earth and Planetary Sciences Building, which can be seen in the foreground.
The most recent buildings Leonard Masonry worked on are Uncas A. Whitaker Hall for Biomedical Engineering (background) and the Earth and Planetary Sciences Building, which can be seen in the foreground.

“We keep some granite in stock, but you never know how much you are going to need,” said John Randolph, Missouri Red Quarries Inc. supervisor. “If they come and say they need 20,000 cubic feet and we only have 10,000 on hand, then we know we need to get to work. We don’t want any delay for them.

“But you never know what they will need. It might be a small building, it might be a big building.”

After getting the granite ordered and cut, the entire lot gets shipped out to a fabricator on the East Coast.

Leonard Masonry has worked with The North Carolina Granite Corp. for years, simply because no facilities exist locally to deal with granite.

“That granite is so hard that nobody around here has equipment that can cut it; not a lot of people want to work with Missouri red granite because it’s so hard,” Kasten said.

“Since we’ve been doing this for so long, we have the granite pre-packaged — cut to height before it makes its back way to St. Louis,” said Steve Schulte, a supervisor with Leonard Masonry. “… It’s a whole lot cleaner process now. I don’t know how they did it in the old days — granite got put up on the scaffold, they chipped it and put it on the wall.”

After cutting the granite into workable lengths, the fabricator sends the stone back to Leonard Masonry, and a team sets about getting the granite ready to make a building.

And in keeping with the tradition of old-time stonemasonry, much of the work is done by hand, out of necessity.

Most people notice that the granite blocks on the campus buildings don’t have a smooth face. But the blocks don’t come that way, and no machines exist to make them rounded, or with a “cabbage head.”

So manual labor comes calling once again.

Leonard Masonry Inc. has won 12 awards for work completed on the Hilltop Campus, including awards for the Earth and Planetary Sciences Building.
Leonard Masonry Inc. has won 12 awards for work completed on the Hilltop Campus, including awards for the Earth and Planetary Sciences Building.

“We had to figure out how to face the stones like the old stones,” Leonard said. “The trick is how much labor will it take to make the new stones look like the old stones from the 1800s.

“We ended up having to hand-pitch every face on every stone, which is probably what they did back in the late 1800s.”

Construction begins

Once the colors and mixes of the stones have been achieved, the first step of the construction process is building a mockup. More than just using Popsicle sticks to build a scale model, the mockups erected by Leonard Masonry replicate the building almost to a T.

“We can actually make these full-scale,” Kasten said. “They can be roughly 20 feet long and maybe 20 feet tall, because it would be the final one for approval. So we include a pretty good field of granite, limestone trim, a window and sometimes part of the roof to make sure all the different colors look right.”

The mockups are always built near existing buildings to make sure the new building will match the old one as closely as possible.

Then comes the tricky part, depending on the building.

The course heights, or stone heights, can be different. Three different heights have been used throughout the campus, so when putting up a new building, the process is almost like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

“Everything works on 3 and 11/16 inch increments,” said Schulte, who has worked on all buildings the company has put up on campus since 1992. “The sizes are 3-11/16 inches, mid-height is 7-3/8 and the jumper is 11-1/16.

“When we started, we got the limestone companies to draw up the plans showing the building being completely granite, then it draws the limestone around the granite so the pieces feather in. All of the granite runs in underneath the limestone. We don’t have to notch any of the granite to get to the limestone, even at the windows and the outside quoins.”

Leonard Masonry Inc. has won 12 awards for work completed on the Hilltop Campus, including awards for both Anheuser-Busch Hall and the Charles F. Knight Executive Education Center.
Leonard Masonry Inc. has won 12 awards for work completed on the Hilltop Campus, including awards for both Anheuser-Busch Hall and the Charles F. Knight Executive Education Center.

The jumper block is the largest of the three different-sized blocks on any given wall, almost an anchor of sorts. Leonard Masonry works to scatter the jumper blocks somewhat randomly across the wall, because as Schulte said, “You want to see the granite wall, but you don’t want to pick out individual pieces.”

This method is necessary for ensuring historical accuracy.

“What makes it interesting is the way they did the old buildings,” Kasten said. “They put stones up there anywhere, and the joints of the granite didn’t necessarily meet the joints of the limestone. You have to have all those joints line up, and it may be something that a lot of people wouldn’t notice, but if it’s not done the right way, you notice.”

It goes much deeper than just lining up the joints or having the right course heights. From the very beginning, Leonard Masonry has to determine how much of what color of which type of stone, mortar and caulk will be needed.

“You need a certain percent of each course height to make the matrix work,” Leonard said. “We’ve sort of got it down to a fine art by now. If you don’t have it straight by now, you need to get out of the business.

“The trickiest part is near the end. We’ve never run short of stone, but we’ve come close.”

So about eight weeks before the building is completed, the contractors look at how much stone is needed to complete the job, how much stone is on hand and figuring final counts and numbers.

“We’re looking at two colors, sometimes three colors,” Leonard said. “Besides figuring out the lineal foot of each course height, we have to figure out what percentage of each color we need. The quality issue is that you don’t want to have a blotch of dark and a blotch of light. It’s a whole different installation quality issue. When you stand back and look at the jobs, you don’t really read that. It’s pretty complicated.”

More than mortar

It might be complicated, but when done right, the rewards — both physical and aesthetic — are bountiful.

Leonard Masonry won 48 regional and national awards between 1988-2002 from groups such as Masonry Construction magazine, the Masonry Contractors Association of America, the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craft Workers and the American Institute of Architects/Construction Products Council.

Projects recognized are as diverse as the Savvis Center; Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital Phase IV; Shaw Park Plaza; the St. Louis Temple of The Church of Latter-day Saints; and several private residences.

But the crown jewel of Leonard Masonry might be the work done on the Hilltop Campus.

“I believe that great universities are to the modern world what Gothic cathedrals were to the late Middle Ages — symbols of our ideals and highest aspirations. I like to think that all of us, like the mostly anonymous stonemasons and architects of those days, add our bit to an endless structure, a structure that will keep alive for generations after we are gone our hopes and our sense of what is right and beautiful.”

— William H. Danforth
(from a 1994 letter to University alumni)

The company has won 12 awards alone for work completed for the School of Law, the Earth and Planetary Sciences Building, the Psychology Building, the Charles F. Knight Executive Education Center, the Arts & Sciences Laboratory Science Building and the Graham Chapel addition.

“The continued tradition of collegiate Gothic architecture on the Hilltop Campus has made Washington University one of the most beautiful campuses in America,” Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said. “The quality of the masonry of our newer buildings has a lot to do with the lasting impression that our buildings leave on visitors and those who come here to work and study, and I am grateful for the creative and productive relationship that the University has developed with Leonard Masonry over the past dozen years.”

In fact, the addition to Graham Chapel received the industry’s highest award, the Tucker Architectural Award from the Building Stone Institute, in spring 2002.

The Tuckers are the architectural equivalent of the Oscars, the Grammys or the Pulitzers. The international award began in 1977 to recognize outstanding achievement in the industry. And while most recipients of the award are large-scale projects, the Graham Chapel addition was on a much, much smaller level.

“One of the biggest challenges we’ve had in the past several years was Graham Chapel,” Leonard said. “It was such a small addition that there was concern whether we should even do it and try to match it. When we actually went out there and looked at it before fabrication, all the limestone was V-grooved, little tiny V’s, like a scratched surface. You’d have to walk up to see it.

“The funny part was on the vertical pieces, the V-grooving was running up and down, and on the horizontal pieces, it was going sideways. So we had to map out which way the V-grooves would run on the pieces when we were fabricating.

“All the V-grooves had to be done by hand. We made a tool kind of like a comb, because you couldn’t individually do it.”

That wasn’t the first taste of the Tucker, though. Leonard Masonry also won the award in 1996 for McDonnell Hall.

Despite the awards and accolades, Leonard Masonry just keeps on building. And building. Its most recently completed project was Uncas A. Whitaker Hall for Biomedical Engineering.

The company is currently working on the Earth and Planetary Sciences Building.

Through it all, though, new things keep popping up to test their knowledge and ability.

“Something I found out after we finished a project, something the architect told me, was that they used to just pick stones up off the ground and put them on a wall, and that doesn’t really work anymore,” Kasten said. “With little slivers here and little pieces there not matching up with the joints and the limestone, that wasn’t working.

“And if you look at the granite on Graham Chapel, we had to match more of the old-style way of ‘here’s just a bunch of junk piled on the ground, let’s put it in.’ So we were having to round the edges of the granite, make it look different from some of the other buildings that we’ve done. The guys on the job spent a lot of time on the job doing that.”

Other scenarios:

“Instead of having a 90-degree corner, we had to round off every corner of each edge of the stones,” Leonard said. “We didn’t have to do that because we weren’t butting into another building. Some of those buildings, that’s just the way they did it because labor was cheap.”

And the early workers used whatever they could find.

“I think that’s the way the granite came off the block and has the tumbled look,” Kasten said. “They threw it in the truck and it got all broken up. But who really knows how it got that way?”

Not many people indeed. But what they do know is that the high standards of the University carry over to its buildings, its contractors and its image.

“Our position is that obviously what (Leonard Masonry is) doing is a good thing, because they keep getting contracts,” said Steve Rackers, the University’s manager of capital projects and records in facilities. “We rely heavily on Steve Schulte, who helped develop our stone standards policy to help maintain the standards of construction and the quality of jobs on the building.

“Steve helped develop those standards to help ensure that the buildings will last as long as the University.”

Leave a Comment

Comments and respectful dialogue are encouraged, but content will be moderated. Please, no personal attacks, obscenity or profanity, selling of commercial products, or endorsements of political candidates or positions. We reserve the right to remove any inappropriate comments. We also cannot address individual medical concerns or provide medical advice in this forum.