Thursday, November 3, 2011
Monday, June 13, 2011
Thursday, March 10, 2011
In the fall of 1903, Fox and several investors started the Great American Marble Company. Apparently the money men had noble aspirations or visions of grandeur. They definitely had other problems, including financial troubles and interpersonal conflicts. Turns out that one investor, Robert Ball, was actually one Charles Mains, a lawyer from Michigan disbarred for shady shenanigans.
Meanwhile, the owners of the Vermont Marble Company (VMC), in Vermont, had been hearing rumors of “mountains of marble – ‘quantities beyond calculation’ – and of a quality such that ‘no other marble in the world was superior.” Eventually representatives of VMC made it to Marble Island, verified the rumors, and noted a good potential market for the stone. D. H. Bixler wrote in 1908 to VMC “As for the future of Seattle there cannot be much doubt. It seems as though it will surely grow…The pace has been set for first class buildings and any that follow will have to have more or less interior marble.”
With VMC now holding the rights to the marble, they began to develop operations. The initial shipment of 101 tons of marble left Tokeen on July 18, 1909. As many as eight quarries operated with most blocks going to the VMC yard in Tacoma. During the peak years of operation from 1912 to 1915, more than 4,360 blocks were shipped to Tacoma. Cut stone went into buildings from Boston to Honolulu including post offices in Bellingham and San Diego; the Empress Theater in Salt Lake City; the county building in Pittsburgh, and the Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital. In Seattle, it went into King County Courthouse, the Hoge Building, the Bank of California and Smith Tower.
Alaska marble in the Smith Tower
The marble comes from metamorphosed layers of the Heceta Limestone, an Early to Late Silurian (430 to 420mya). Subsequent intrusion of a hornblende diorite metamorphosed the limestone into a marble. Parts of the Heceta is rich in fossils, though none are found in the marble beds. The limestone formed mostly on a shallow marine platform with some deeper water deposition, too.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Despite not meeting the aspirations of some, Smith Tower does sport a rather handsome lobby. Two stones dominate, onyx marble from Mexico and marble from Alaska. This post will focus on the Mexican rock.
Onyx is a notoriously confusing stone. True onyx is a variety of quartz. It is sometimes referred to as layered chalcedony or black-and-white agate. The onyx used as building stone is not made of quartz but of calcite and is known as onyx marble. Because such calcareous onyx became popular in the United States through stone quarried near Mexico City, it is also called Mexican onyx, as well, no matter its point of origin. Onyx marble used in ancient Rome and by early Egyptians usually came from Algeria. All onyx marble is popular because of the colorful layering and ability to be highly polished. Color variation depends on the amount of iron and manganese and their oxidation states in the deposits, which become layered as they accumulate in pools.
The Smith Tower onyx panels are from Baja California from an area known as El Marmol. Like all onyx marble, it formed layer by thin layer in springs, in this case cold water springs. Other onyx marbles form in hot springs, too. They can also form as stalactites and stalactites. First quarried around 1893, the El Marmol deposits are about 160 miles southeast of Ensenada and 15 miles from the east coast of the peninsula. (One additional note. After posting this blog, I was reminded that the onyx in Smith Tower is also called Pedrara Onyx, in reference to the company that owned the quarries.)
El Marmol achieved a bit of fame for its onyx marble schoolhouse, which was supposedly the only all onyx place of education in the world. Apparently the stones were not polished and by at least the 1950s, the weathered stones were drab and brown. As you can see from this modern shot, it’s not in very good shape.
When geologist George Perkins Merrill visited the Baja quarries in the early 1890s he found the deposits quite pleasing. “Nothing can be more fascinating to the lover of the beautiful in stones than this occurrence, where huge blocks of material of almost ideal soundness, with ever varying shades of color and veination lie everywhere exposed in countless numbers…The colors are peculiarly delicate, and there is a wonderful uniformity in quality…The rose color is, so far as my present knowledge goes, quite unique and wonderfully beautiful.”
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Two of the slabs eventually ended up at the Museo Geologico Giovanni Capellini in Bologna, where they they sat undisturbed until 2009 when paleontologists Federico Fanti and Andrea Cau studied them. They concluded that Leonardi’s crocodile was a new species and the oldest member of the Metriorhychidae, a diverse and curious group of marine crocodilians, which existed from about 171 to 136 mya. They were fierce, pelagic, piscivorous predators. Fanti and Cau named the new species Neptunidraco ammoniticus or “Neptune’s dragon from the Rosso Ammonitico Veronese Formation.”
Neptunidraco is the oldest known member of the Metriorhychidae group and did not look like any modern crocodile. They had streamlined skulls, a vertical tail, and a hydrodynamic body, all features well adapted to a marine lifestyle. Cau describes Neptune’s dragon as “more like a dolphin than a croc.” Based on their anatomy and teeth, they ate small, swift fishes. They may have ventured onto land to lay eggs. Later Metriorhynchids were more robust and could have eaten armored fish and large marine reptiles.
Rosso Ammonitico, also known as Verona Marble, is a Middle Jurassic age, generally reddish limestone rich in ammonites, hence the name. It formed in deep water as fine grained sediments settled into the Tethys Sea on the margin of Gondwanaland. The specific quarry was near Sant’Ambrogio di Valpolicella, about 10 miles northwest of Verona. (The fossil-rich slabs come from a more yellow part of the quarries, known as “ammonitico giallo.”) Used since Roman times, Rosso Ammonitico can be found at the Arena in Verona, the Battistero in Parma, the Palazzo Ducale in Venice, the Cathedral in Cremona, and the Galleria V. Emanuele in Milan. (On the VertePaleo list serv, the reporting of this story led to some amusing anti-limestone-countertop comments. When I was in Bloomington, Indiana, working on my chapter on the Salem Limestone, I remember seeing builders touting the limestone countertops of a new rental units. To each his/her own.)
The publication of the story apparently has ruffled a few feathers in Italy. On Andrea Cau’s blog, he notes that one famous Italian geologist offered critical comments on the discovery (saying it wasn’t truly a discovery since the fossil had been known since 1955) and the bigger implication that it provides a new understanding of the evolution of these intriguing marine crocodiles. Cau believes that the conflict results in part from a generational difference and a clash of paradigms, where the young upstarts are willing to reconsider, restudy, and reevaluate past concepts and specimens. He recognizes that their discovery does not change the world but it “is a beautiful piece of a huge mosaic called paleontology.” (Translation from Google Translator.)
Moreover, isn’t what Cau and Fanti did part of what makes science so appealing and such a valuable way to understand the world around us. We should applaud them for looking carefully, for struggling with understanding what they saw, for asking questions, for drawing new conclusions, and for learning from those who came before. And yes, their new discovery is a thing of beauty.