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An external wall treatment in which cement is shaped in attempt to make the wall appear as if it were contructed from large stone blocks. If we follow modern aesthetic sensibilities, we would say the overall effect is to make the wall extraordinarily stupid-looking. But in 1940's and 1950's Baltimore, Formstone met a complex of needs, and so you will run into it everywhere you look in the city.

This is Baltimore! Why do you think they're called "Baltimorons"?

-Ernest Tilley (Danny Devito), Tin Men

Barry Levinson's movies have traditionally been about his experiences growing up in Baltimore during the 1950's and his 1987 movie Tin Men was no different. Ostensibly about a pair of unscrupulous aluminum siding salesmen, it should be clear to anyone who studies the city's history that it's not so much about tin as tarted-up cement. Perhaps the Hollywood Establishment thought Formstone was "too local" a phenomenon and made Levinson change the movie. Or perhaps Baltimoreans should be content to understand the private joke and keep it that way. Whatever. Formstone is as identifiable with Baltimore as the red brick it covered up.

Fake stone external wall treatments were actually nothing new - The technique is very simple:

  1. Nail chicken wire to the wall.
  2. Slather concrete into the chicken wire. (Actually, several differently-colored layers are applied).
  3. Using a special tool, cut through the top layer to reveal the "mortar joints" between the "blocks" from a layer beneath. (A type of "cameo" process).

Over windows, "blocks" would be shaped to look like an arch complete with "keystone". For a little extra, the homeowner could have colorants added to "blocks" to make them appear made from different colored blocks of shale, or mica sprayed into the top layer to make it sparkle like flagstone. Or both!

Baltimore entrepeneur Albert Knight didn't have inner-city rowhouses in mind when he patented "Formstone" in 1937. Knight's idea was that suburban houses, with their frequent additions and renovations, needed something to architecturally unify them. However, Baltimore's building boom during the late 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in thousands of houses built with an inexpensive porous brick that caused paint to peel on the inside walls. Houses in the city center, owned by more well-off people, were built of better-quality brick or even stone. Although it may amuse some people who live in areas where local stone is the only building material, stone is the most expensive building material in a modern city, and a house made of stone is a symbol of wealth and status rivalled by few others.

With home ownership on the rise at the end of World War II, city residents' problems with their cheap brick houses collided with their inflationary social expectations. Knight's company, Lasting Products Company, licensed local contractors to apply the wall treatment, and supplied them with the specialized tools, colorants, and other materials to complete the process. Unscrupulous salesmen crossed the city, preying on residents' hopes and fears, and used the same blockbusting techniques that caused the same people to move from the city into the suburban sprawl of neighboring counties during the 1950's and 1960's. Tons of money were made as whole blocks of rowhouses were slathered with the stuff, and frame houses had chicken wire nailed over their red cedar shingles and Formstoned. The rectory of the Basilica of the Assumption was Formstoned (its removal is not part of the multiyear renovation begun in late 2004).

Forward to the 1990's as the gentrification of many neighborhoods combined with new aesthetics and social climbing forces. Combined with the end of the treatment's useful life, many new homeowners are having the Formstone chipped away and having the mortar in their beautiful red brick walls repointed. It'll be a dream until the next rainstorm. A post-2000 trend now has many people painting their Formstone, hastening its decay.

There's no doubt the stuff is stupid-looking. Anyone who owns a Formstoned house should have the stuff removed if they can afford it, and if the removal won't require demolition of the whole house. But perhaps it would be a shame to see all the Formstone go. It's part of the quirky character that has become indelibly associated with Baltimore.


Local oral tradition

Ann Milkovich McKee, "Stonewalling America: Simulated Stone Products", Twentieth Century Building Materials. McGraw-Hill, 1995. Available online at the National Park Service's Cultural Resource Management website,
http://crm.cr.nps.gov/archive/18-8/18-8-6.pdf

Further Reading:

Paul K. Williams, "The Faux-Stone Follies". Old House Journal Online,
http://www.oldhousejournal.com/magazine/2003/june/faux_stone.shtml

City Paper review of Little Castles, a documentary film by Skizz Cyzyk, 3/25/1998
http://www.citypaper.com/film/review.asp?id=2507

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