Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology

by David B. Williams

Hardcover, 2009


Checked out
Due Oct 14, 2017


New York : Walker, 2009.


Documents the author's discoveries of geologically relevant materials that have been used as construction and artistic elements in major cities, revealing what can be learned about ancient and recent history through such structures as the Bunker Hill Monument, a 1935 gas station, and a St. Augustine fort.

User reviews

LibraryThing member richardderus
I like pop science books a lot. I enjoy learning about things I've either avoided in the past or simply never thought thing one about. This subject is one of the latter.

Williams has an extra-interesting (to me) chapter on brownstone(s) I'm a few miles from Brooklyn, and a former resident of a brownstone-clad building in Manhattan, I've seen a lot of stuff about them. I've noticed, for example, a fact that Williams explores at some length...the rotten condition of a lot of brownstone facades...and always thought, "whatinaheck made people use this stuff?! It's ugly and it's fragile!" Well, Mr. Williams goes into the bad-condition part (cheap construction) and even comments on the changes that took place in attitudes towards the stone. Originally the brownstone wasn't thought highly of by the cognoscenti of the day, being drab and uniform and inidicative of a certain bourgeois striving that the haut ton has always smirkingly dismissed. Then it came to be seen as charming, for some damn reason, and now it seems that we're heading back into condescenscion. ca change....

Granite, my personal favorite stone, gets a lot of play in this book, and I learned a great deal about its genesis and its manifold strengths. I lived in a part of Texas that is a big ol' granite shelf with dead coral reefs atop it (the Hill Country), whence cometh a lovely pink granite.

I think books like this offer a very useful meditation on the world around us. A built environment is every bit as complex and interesting and worthy of quiet contemplation as a natural environment is, and too few people afford the built environment more than a disparaging glance. It's foolish to think that a state of nature has more inherent interest than humanity's considered labors. Why should we humans dismiss the fruits of our labors? Why not appreciate both for their different strengths?

I don't think Williams exactly meant to bring this idea to the fore, but it's the first thing that sprang to my mind. I'd recommend the book more highly, but the author isn't a prose stylist of any great note. He's solid and informative and able to convey a sense of his pleasure in the stones we build our life-caves from, but his words take flight exactly never and I see that as a demerit. I'd like for people who *don't* like science to read the book. It's worth your while because you'll get a small sense of what science does...explain the universe to us in useful and interesting ways.
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LibraryThing member dandelionroots
Focuses on ten different stones used in contemporary and ancient buildings and then follows their geological and human-use history. Everything was interesting: how the stones form, how they're quarried, how they are (and were) transported, why they were chosen for the various architectural projects (their strengths/weaknesses and/or human's preferences) and even the back stories of the people and places he researched. It's not uber technical so even if you're not a geology geek, it's still a fun read.… (more)
LibraryThing member IronMike
Stories in Stone is a most interesting addition to my library. I found it constantly surprising...sometimes as if the author were reading my mind. In the early chapters, for example, there were descriptions of quarries which reminded me of one of my favorite movies: a movie I hadn't thought of in years, "Breaking Away." In one of the later chapters, sure enough, the author quotes one of the characters from the movie "Breaking Away," and I had to smile. This kind of touchstone (if you'll permit the pun,) turned up frequently in the book... Lyrics from songs I'd loved, and half-forgotten seemed to come to mind a few moments before the author wrote them down; historic personages I'd known a bit about now appeared in a slightly different light, etc. And there are wonderful facts about the stones we use to build our homes and fortifications etc., and how these stones react to the ways we use them, seeming to be almost alive, and forcing us to reconsider our original assumptions in selecting them. I could be more specific and talk about Michaelangelo's marble etc., but that would detract from the fun you'd find by reading Stories in Stone yourself.
Chapter 1 is about brownstone. I dislike brownstone. But the author was kind enough to let me know I was in good company. Edgar Allen Poe and Edith Wharton also disliked brownstone. Well, despite the author's persuasiveness I still dislike brownstone.
Early on in the book, (I think in the chapter on granite...though I've searched and I can't find it there,) the author draws a picture of a group of men looking at a stone about 250 years ago, wondering how to work it. They build a fire on top of the stone to loosen it up a bit, then whack the stone with boulders or something and learn that they can thereby crack the stone. And they are jubilant. I think that picture teaches us a lot about ourselves. Despite our plasma televisions and rockets to the moon, deep down we're still what my grandmother would call "a bunch of idjitts" figuring out how to crack a stone.
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LibraryThing member chuck_ralston
David B. Williams’ Stories in Stone is an assemblage of metaphors of metamorphosis, of rock under earth pressure melting, crystallizing, eroding, and ever alive beneath one’s feet. Highlights:

The opening chapter is about sandstone quarried and shipped from Portland, Connecticut to become the ‘brownstone’ row houses of New York and other urban terrains during the nineteenth century. Manhattan’s Trinity Church (the second church so named, the first destroyed by fire in 1776) is made of brownstone, which is sandstone colored reddish brown by iron oxide, and survived the debris of the fallen World Trade Center’s twin towers on 9/11. Considered by novelist Edith Wharton, “the most hideous stone ever quarried” (Williams’ title for his opening chapter), today’s restored Brownstones are highly prized.

‘Poetry in Stone’, Chapter Three, is about the Salinian granite that poet Robinson Jeffers used to construct his life-long home, Tor House, which overlooks the Pacific at Carmel-by-the Sea, California. Jeffers’ autobiography in granite, as it were, is made of a unique stone found only between Carmel and Half Moon Bay, the result of recent geologic studies of the movement of multiple terranes (land masses) relative to ‘plate tectonic’ theory. As Williams says, Jeffers’ ideas took shape in Carmel at Tor House and as geologist Aaron Yoshinobu, student of both geology and Jeffers said, “[. . .] Jeffers found granite and granite found Jeffers.”

‘The Clam That Changed the World’, Chapter Five, discusses ‘coquina’, the stone used to construct the walls of the Castillo de San Marcos which Spanish fort protected the city of St. Augustine on Florida’s Atlantic coast. This elastic aggregate comprised of whole and crushed sea shells and the ‘Elmer’s’ glue of the day’ withstood naval artillery bombardment by absorbing the fragments of cannon balls to the dismay of attackers.

‘America’s Building Stone’, Chapter Six, focuses on Indiana (or Salem) limestone, made up of the skeletons of the brachiopods, bryozoans, and crinoids of the Mississippian Period (330 million years ago) of the Earth’s geologic timeline. This stone has been used in the construction of some 750 federal post offices, the Lincoln Monument, immigration buildings on Ellis Island, and in repairs to the White House and the Capitol.

Williams also delights readers with stories about the use of petrified wood to build a gas station in Lamar, Colorado; the failure of Michelangelo’s cherished Carrara marble as a facing for the corporate headquarters building of Standard Oil Company of Indiana, now Amoco, in Chicago; the dependable uses of slate in blackboards, billiard tables, and as roofing material.

This is a book chocked full of science, humor, history, manners and myth. It is as its author claims, a “story in stone that one can see every day if we take the time to look, to ask questions, to wonder about the world around us.” (p. 222)
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LibraryThing member SomeGuyInVirginia
I’m reviewing an advanced reading copy of Stories in Stone.

I read somewhere that IQ scores are rising and have been for years now. I don’t doubt it, but I feel that the broad-spectrum rise has more to do with the sudden proliferation of new kinds of technology than it does with a strengthening of the US education system or improved nutrition. The report went on to say that the increase is not attributed to changes in the tests themselves. In my non-scientific opinion, the current population has had to adapt to highly structured and logical systems in order to function and this adaption has increased IQ scores. As an example, how many times have you said or heard it said that it would be great if there was a kid was around to program the DVD player or set an electronic clock? I imagine a similar pattern was also seen after the industrial revolution; certainly it allowed for a larger middle class with its free time and desire to move up, including the paper chase for degrees. It would be interesting to look into cognitive patterns that followed all leaps in technology- fire, writing, the wheel, printing, electricity, the car. I also feel that the rise in IQ scores doesn’t mean that people are smarter than their ancestors (more able to identify, manipulate and adapt abstractions) but the logical thinking required to use modern technology increases the taker’s ability to provide correct answers on an IQ test. I’m probably wrong, I often am, but an intelligent general population certainly has made possible a recent cavalcade of popular science writing. The best of them, like Stories in Stone, don't simply instruct but require us to observe and think.

Stories in Stone is an engaging, meandering discourse on stone and how man has used it in building. The book revolves around major themes of geology/topography, transportation, money, and fashion. David Williams points out that geology/topography was the first consideration- use what’s at hand. Centuries later, transportation allowed builders to move stone long distances. Transportation increased trade which lead to increased wealth. Like Cindi Lauper said, money changes everything; in this case it allowed builders to reach and move the stone they or their patrons most wanted used in building, so with money came fashion (though not necessarily taste or sense, see his chapter on New York brownstones, the paragraphs on the decline of the use of slate in roofing and the chapter on the use of marble.)

It’s hard not to like Stories in Stone, the material is encouraging and Williams writes with an engaging style. So I did like it. Occasionally, he writes like the book is supposed to be used as a travel guide (and it can be, several of the chapters discuss specific buildings or clustered types.) There are times when it is perhaps more confusing than helpful, such as when he describes in detail how to reach a specific Puritan gravestone in a Boston church yard. Instead of a description, a simple map would do. It's relevant because for most Americans, selecting a stone for a grave is the only rock they'll ever have to decide on, and the sidelight on the development of cemetaries Williams sketched was interesting. However, the right/left detail highlight the lack of illustrative material, the book's only serious flaw. Diagrams of quarrying techniques would help a great deal, as well as pictures of the stone being described. Also, a geologic timeline and maps of the ancient land masses and their movement would bring a deeper understanding of the processes that Williams describes.

The most underdeveloped chapter, as far as non-scientific readers are concerned, is also the most beautiful and comes closest to a central premise of the book (revealing how people can start to relate to stone and, in a broader sense, the earth.) It’s the last, on travertine. I got that Williams didn’t want to get bogged down in hard science, but he would have done me a service by clearing up three things: 1) Explain the meaning of ‘artifact’. Was he, or Dr. Folk, saying that the doctor was viewing living bacteria in the stone as well as fossilized bacteria? 2) Explain what gold coating artifacts are (p. 212), just a brief word or two, and 3) that some bacteria contain chlorophyll and undergo photosynthesis but not all, and how that relates to the Barco travertine.

Also, point out the obvious- travertine is 10s of thousands of years old which is a tick of the clock in geologic time, and is formed so quickly it can be measured in real time, but was used extensively in building the Colosseum in Rome, antiquity to man. A tightening of the seams between the discussion on the bacteria in travertine and the fossilized reeds and leaves also found in it and used in the Getty would help make the point that stone is a living record of life, some of it fairly recent and accessible.

These are not errors, but reflect readings by specialists and trained scientists. He should have run it past a mystery buff.

Go buy Stories in Stone. It’s great for the urban geologist and if you’re a country boy, you’ll appreciate the insights into those stone fences and the old stone ruins you see all over the place. Reading the book really did ignite the excited, inquisitive kid in me.
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LibraryThing member napaxton
I really enjoyed this. I'm a fan of John McPhee's geological adventures, and although I have a Ph.D. in the social sciences, I often find myself wishing I had studied lots more geology.

Williams wanders about cities and looks at what most of us just see as buildings, and walls, and stairs, and all sorts of other structures. but he sees the record of the earth's history, and he wants to illuminate it for us. I found his coverage of details interesting; for example, why are the brownstones outside Harvard Hall wearing down when they shouldn't be; what do different colors and patterns of granite tell us about how the granite was formed?; why are the stones from some quarries particularly prized and how is it that those conditions are often very localized?

All in all, an enjoyable romp connecting the world of artificial structures with the elemental forces of nature itself.
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LibraryThing member davesmind
I remember picking up stones as a kid wondering where they came from and wondering if anyone could know their history. It doesn't require much exposure to geology to realize that every stone has a story. In this book, David Williams tells the stories behind a number of notable bits of stone, emphasizing those that make up the architecture of the U.S.
I loved this book and even bought copies for relatives for Christmas. The writing is straightforward: nothing spectacular. However, it has a charm to it. Williams clearly has a passion for these stones loves the story that is behind them.
I even got an added surprise. He started chapter 7 with a 80 year old quote from my Grandfather. I was certainly not expecting that since my Grandfather was a Baptist Minister in a small town in Colorado at the time; but it was certainly a bonus.
I recommend this to anyone interested in geology or architecture. I hope he continues this direction. I am sure there are quite a few stories like these yet to tell.
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LibraryThing member highland65
I have a rock collection, so I hoped to find Stories in Stone "interesting." Instead, I found it fun and well-written ... and interesting.

Each of the ten chapters is indeed a story, most set in the U.S., about a particular kind of stone, how it has been used in buildings and how the stone got there. Mr. Williams makes ordinary brownstone dramatic and strange coquina understandable.

It should go without saying that Stories in Stone ought to be required reading for students of geology, architecture and building construction. But I also recommend it for those who are fenced inside urban landscapes; whose children assume milk comes from grocery refrigerators (though there's a cow involved somewhere) and gasoline comes from a pump (though a dinasour is in that story). Williams tells us how our building materials come from dynamic earth events - not simply a quarry pit.

As David B. Williams tells us in his Preface, we walk past buildings every day that are as geologically and historically fascinating as mountainsides in Italy, battlefields in Florida, and the fantastical worlds of ancient volcanos and fossils. His book is a great read, a great education and a great travel companion.
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LibraryThing member Dystopos
William's book is a fine collection of essays on the natural and cultural history of various stones used in building, from Italian marble and travertine to Connecticut brownstone and Florida coquina. Bringing together these geologic (BIG picture) and architectural (detail oriented) perspectives makes for engaging reading with plenty of opportunities for interesting asides. Williams did a good job of finding the right balance and scope for each section and the endnotes and acknowledgements reinforce the reader's impression of great care taken to edit together source material which ranges from anecdotal histories to scientific articles to the author's own experience. The only weaknesses I found were a tendency toward clumsy analogies and a lack of direct interviews with architects regarding their use of stone.… (more)
LibraryThing member KStewart3446
Williams, David B. STORIES IN STONE: Travels Through Urban Geology. New York: Walker & Company, 2009.

For anyone interested in deepening their experience of cities, seeing beneath the skins of urban architecture, or learning more about the how these skins were formed and came to be used in cities, I recommend the book, STORIES IN STONE: Travels Through Urban Geology. The ten chapters on Brownstone, Granite, Carmel Granite, Minnesota Gneiss, Florida Coquina, Indiana Limestone, Colorado Petrified Wood, Carrara Marble, East Coast Slate and Italian Travertine represent a range of urban and barely urban settings through which many travelers are likely to pass on vacations, weekend get-aways or business trips.

Published in Smithsonian, High Country News, Science World, Earth magazine, and the Seattle Times, David B. Williams has been a national park ranger, a curriculum writer for the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, and a geology programs teacher at the North Cascades Institute. His previous books are The Seattle Street-smart Naturalist and A Naturalist’s Guide to Canyon Country. He now writes, reads, hikes and bikes in Seattle with his wife Marjorie Kittle. And it was Marjorie Kittle’s decision to pursue a Master’s degree that triggered the writing of STORIES IN STONE. “…we moved to Boston. I hated the first few months. Where I had once traipsed through quiet sandstone canyons, surrounded by thousand-foot-tall cliffs of rock, I now walked through shadowy canyons created by buildings. Where I once hiked on desolate trails, I now crossed busy streets. For the first time in many years I felt disconnected from the natural world. And then I noticed Boston’s buildings….”

Each of the ten chapters describes the geologic story of its chosen stone, starting with brownstone’s 200 million year old beginnings and ending with the more recently quarried Italian travertine dating to 200,000 years ago. Williams cites buildings and blocks of buildings erected from the earliest days of the republic to the contemporary Getty Museum. He discusses the places where the stone was found as well as the men who quarried it. The triumph and, in some cases, the decline of each of the stones as reigning building materials is surveyed.

I am not an educator and am only vaguely aware of the intricacies of curriculum development. If I did have those responsibilities, I might very well use David B. Williams’ STORIES IN STONE as a basis for encouraging students to discover or explore their interests in the sciences, natural history, geology, hydrology, biology, in history, Michelangelo’s use of Carrara marble, John Quincy Adam’s controversial introduction of slate to the White House, and in culture, the significances people have attributed to the use of various kinds of stone, the industrialization of quarrying. STORIES is not without its share of repeatable stories; I share only one: “Smitten with tracks, Hitchcock started collecting them himself. He always wore his black suit and tie when out in the field, although often he would sneak home late at night because he recognized that digging and transporting tracks was ‘not comporting with the dignity of a professor.’ He even found and made a cast of tracks from a sidewalk on Greenwich street in Manhattan. Hitchcock later wrote that casting the Greenwich tracks almost landed him in the local asylum: A former student saved him when she testified that he was ‘no more deranged than such men usually are.’”
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LibraryThing member dichosa
So surprised to find a book about the 'history' of stones/rocks made to build some famous buildings around the U.S. I picked the book because I love geology. Though there is geology, there isn't a lot of jargon. I have enjoyed the simple storytelling style of how and where these stones were quarried, and how certain events in history affected the choice of stones.… (more)
LibraryThing member dchaikin
This was fine. I mean it is as advertised - fun, light, lots of interesting trivia especially for geologists. It's a book I've always wanted to read - about what stones are used as building stone, why they're used, what is the geology behind those stones and what geologic quirks makes them nice for building with. You just don't find books like that.

Williams covers Michelangelo's marble, the history of the New York brownstone, Boston granite, Indiana Limestone among others. He includes a chapter of travertine that links the work of a geologic icon in sedimentology, Robert Folk, with the discovery of evidence of Martian life on that meteor - you know the one. It happened to be my favorite chapter in the book. This is all good stuff and there was a lot to think about; really this is trivia candy for anyone with geologic interest.

It's just...somehow my response to the book is very bland. I have had the same reaction to other trivia filled popular nonfiction books. They are heavy on trivia, but somehow missing something else.
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LibraryThing member themagiciansgirl
Stories in Stone by David B. Williams chronicles the history, culture and science behind a wide-ranging variety of stone and how mankind used it to build the country, and the world. The Castillo de San Marcos in Florida (coquina), Michelangelo's David in Italy (Cararra marble), poet Robinson Jeffer's cottage in California (granite) and chalkboards in any century-old small town classroom (slate) are just a few of the examples. This is a lively and enjoyable read. There's a fair amount of technical information, but it's more than manageable and adds yet another dimension to the book. You'll even find a bit of humor:

"Energized by pig fat and caffeine, we headed back out to find rocks."

I particularly enjoyed knowing where the rock was originally quarried and how and how far it traveled to its eventual building site. I didn't realize just how hard men toiled, and often even died, for stone. It seems that they coveted rock not because it was a perfect building or carving material - in some monumental instances it wasn't - but because it was gorgeous and moving and a universal symbol of power and timelessness. This book is a wonderful and unusual account of the many ways man has left his mark with rock.
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LibraryThing member jjmcgaffey
Interesting but not absorbing. I put it down months ago and only now decided to finish it. I like the idea - that the stone found in man-made structures tells us about both the geological history of the stone itself and about the human history that led to it being used in this way for this building. Some of the framing is a little awkward, especially the chapter that starts with him looking at and describing stone, and only after two and a half pages does he say that he's on a college campus, not in a field somewhere. Sometimes the time-jumping gets confusing - from modern day to ancient times when the stone came into existence to old to ancient human times - 1800s, Roman times, 1600s - when the stone was quarried and used. No one jump is confusing, but for instance in the coquina chapter he keeps switching between the Spanish settlers and modern-day tourists, including him, with occasional diversions to the ancient seashore where the coquina was laid down. There are probably twenty switches in the eleven pages of the chapter - it becomes disorienting. I enjoyed it, I'll probably read it again, but it wasn't wonderful.… (more)
LibraryThing member appleby
I found myself less interested in this than perhaps the book deserved -- I thought I was going to read a different book. I thought there would have been more geology in it, but the stories are more about how the stone went from quarry to building, instead of what the stone could tell us about plate tectonics and ancient seabeds. That said, I don't fault the author for doing a thorough job of the book they did write, but found it heavy lifting to read through one more story about mines or differing types of brownstone.… (more)
LibraryThing member ranaverde
This book offers a fascinating twist on both geology and the urban environment. Treating the streets of cities like Boston and Chicago and Bloomington like cliffs and canyons, Williams takes the reader on a tour of the architectural stones that make up the built environment of the United States. We learn about the geology and human history of granite, limestone, brownstone, and other distinctive rock types. Williams is a friendly, engaging writer, able to combine instruction in geology, architecture and stone-cutting with personal stories and accounts of the interesting people involved in the stone trade. Definitely worth reading, whether you are a city person or a lover of the outdoors.… (more)
LibraryThing member clif_hiker
First of all I love reading about rocks. That makes me a bit odd and certainly somewhat unique, I know. But still, Like the author, I often notice buildings, monuments, roads, etc that use native rock as the building material. So this book was a perfect fit for me. I enjoyed learning about the histories behind some of the more famous brownstones, granites and marbles used in some of our oldest and most famous buildings. While a bit dry at times, this was still a pretty quick read and recommended for people who, like me, are more interested in the rock that a building or sign is made out of than what is in the building or on the sign.… (more)
LibraryThing member stevetempo
A very enjoyable journey. "Slow down and look more carefully..." says Mr. Williams and that's what he does as he visits and examines several classic stone building materials. You know these materials (brownstone, slate, etc.) because we have all seen them. But you may not have really experienced them until you have looked deeper. This is what this fine book provides. I enjoyed the wonderful connections that Mr. Williams orchestrates with these stone building materials. For each type stone he weaves a thread through history, poetry, architecture, art, culture, scientific principals, practical understanding etc. The book reads like a wonderful travel guide that stimulates your curiosity and yields not only insight but a occasional laugh along the way. I'm a High School science teacher and plan to use several of the geological connections to culture in my lessons. An engaging accessible read for anyone interested in history, science or the practical understanding of building with stone.… (more)
LibraryThing member stretch
This book reminded me of all the reasons why I love Geology. David B. Williams is able to mix history, geology, and pure wonderment in such a way that the rocks took on a life of their own. You could feel the enthusiasm and love Williams has for these rocks and architecture on every page. I especially loved the Salem Limestone section and can say with absolute certainty it is everything Williams says and more. I’ve spent a lot of time staring at Maxwell Hall and all the other Limestone clad structures around Indiana University's beautiful campus. After reading this book, I have a new appreciation for urban geology that I was severely lacking. Now when I look at the city I live in I see a completely new landscape, full of rich stone and history. This book really has changed the way I look at buildings and defined why I really never liked the buildings made of glass and steel.

Williams did a terrific job of mixing the rocks geologic significance and the history of its use as a building stone making the book engaging and interesting for a reader that is not all that familiar with geology or arcitechiture. A glossary in the back of the book helps with some of the more obscure terminology for the uninitiated. My only complaint was a lack of color pictures, I found myself googling up images to see exactly the textures and colors Williams is so eloquently describing. But then again I love embedded pictures with the text they belong too, instead of some segregated section in the middle totally out of context. Overall a very enjoyable and educational read.
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