About 80 percent of the limestone used in buildings and monuments across the United States comes from a relatively narrow belt in southern Indiana. Because of a very particular set of geological circumstances spanning millions of years—which include a shallow sea, sediment and glacier runoff—Indiana limestone is the absolute best in its class in the country, if not the world.
Early inhabitants like the Miami Indians and pioneer settlers recognized the stone’s quality, but had no resources to cut it easily, much less transport it anywhere.
That all changed with the railroads in the mid-1800s. Like the special climate factors that had to come together to produce the stone, a confluence of extraordinary happenings brought on the industry that would put small towns on America’s map.
Just at the time we wished to create monuments to America’s greatness, limestone was discovered as a premier building material, followed by the technology of train transportation and, last but not least, skilled master carvers of stone immigrated to America in a huge wave of diaspora from Europe that enabled the material to be turned into architectural wonders.
Its sea origins, along with the millions of years of decay of tiny sea creatures that compressed and crystallized, produced a dense and almost flawless stone that can be cut in any direction. It is much more workable than granite, much less at risk of breaking in the wrong place than marble. And because it is made of the same stuff as our bones—calcite—it is non-toxic.
It brought millions of dollars into the economy of southern Indiana, including Bedford and Oolitic (named for the shape of tiny marine organisms in limestone), the boom extending from the late 1800s to well into the 1930s.
The Vanderbilts and other wealthy families who were building in Newport, Rhode Island, and New York City employed architects who would use nothing but Bedford—or as it is also known, Salem—limestone for their mansions and town houses.
The Empire State Building, the National Cathedral and the Pentagon are just three examples among hundreds of enduring and iconic structures graced by this beautiful stone. After the 9/11 attacks, Bedford limestone was used to repair the Pentagon, milled by the venerable Bybee Stone Co. of Ellettsville.
I recently made a two-day trip to southern Indiana, leading a group to explore limestone land. I wanted to peel back some of the layers on learning about this stone that is geologically related to marble, the stone of my Italian carving ancestors, but also so different.
The Indiana University Geological Survey is in the midst of sorting through some 26,000 photographs taken by professionals hired by the Indiana Limestone Co., of prominent buildings and residences from Grand Central Station to Lakeshore Drive in Chicago to Monument Circle. This collection was found just a few years ago, unexpectedly, in decrepit filing cabinets and surprisingly intact after sitting for many decades forgotten about.
What is extraordinary is that every one of these large and high-resolution photographs has a label on the back with all the details from the project name—to the date, the cost, the amount of cubic feet of limestone used, and the name of the photographer.
It is a dream of a collection and a complete documentation of the legacy limestone has left us.•
Faenzi is the author of “The Stonecutter’s Aria,” a historical novel based on the true stories of her marble-carving Tuscan ancestors who immigrated to Indiana.