By Bill Primavera
As I drive our country roads in upper Westchester, I always enjoy the rugged beauty of our stone walls harking back to our 18th century agrarian roots. But I appreciate the newly-constructed versions as well, the most beautiful that I’ve seen of the latter is at Martha Stewart’s home in Katonah.
In this region, we have plenty of stone, mostly granite, deposited in the Ice Age that formed the beautiful mountains, valleys, streams and lakes that make up our gorgeous landscape today.
For me, stonework on my former property – the terraces, stone stairs, patios, paths and walls – were built over four decades of joyful handiwork.
Most of us have more time at home now with the pandemic, so what better time to practice stonework to enhance our properties? Property enhancement with stone is a two-part process: sourcing the materials and then applying them in projects that can both utilize the stone found and create some functional or visual effect within the already-existing landscape.
The easy way to source material is simply to go to a garden supply center and buy a pallet or two of stone that is most appealing. To me, this is almost cheating, although I’ve succumbed to it on occasion. Most times, it’s the scavenger hunt for material that I enjoyed.
This quest for sourcing stone started when I acquired my first home, a townhouse in Brooklyn Heights. The original bluestone sidewalk had long since disappeared and there was an old, cracked concrete walkway from the house façade to the street. I hired some “preservationists” who helped me acquire some bluestone slabs from another neighborhood that was being re-developed for new housing.
Between the bluestone slabs and the curb, I installed Belgian block that I had taken from a downtown excavation site (after asking the foreman and slipping him a few bucks). I was in creative heaven, loading down the trunk of my car with these stones that had originally served as ballast on merchant ships returning from Europe. My tailpipe dragged along the ground as I returned home. The combined effect of the cobblestone and bluestone was beautiful.
When I moved to the suburbs, I bought an old farmhouse on 1.5 acres that was to become my canvas for natural stone art for the next 40 years. While it originally had been very stony land as everything in northern Westchester is, the ground had been long cleared of stone to allow for farming.
The stones taken from my property had been deposited on the other side of my road in odd stonewalls that had long ago collapsed into amorphous mounds of rock. I asked the owner of the lot if I could take loose stones there and she agreed. Stone by stone, I gathered as much material as my wheelbarrow and my back could tolerate and started plying my talent for natural stone placement.
My system was this: I used the stone exactly as found. I have no stone cutting tools, nor do I want them. I like the challenge of designing according to individual shapes, colors and textures and how they relate to each other and to the total project, without breaking them up. And I never used mortar to fill cracks or to hold things together.
This was more fun, much like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, whether I was building a wall that needed to be steady and strong or laying paths and patios on sand. I required that the stones were up against each other on all sides, creating a visually pleasing pattern of shape and color.
If the surface is to be level and walkable it’s always best to find a stone that is flat on two sides for the top and bottom. But I have laid many stones with a curved bottom, adjusting the sand and earth beneath so that it will lie flat. I have never found a flat stone that I didn’t love.
One of my most prolific sourcing opportunities came about when I was driving through Peekskill one day where an original bluestone sidewalk was being demolished to make way for brand new concrete. Again, I talked to the foreman and gave him a few bucks to drive over to my property and drop off the broken pieces behind my garage. I didn’t realize how big that pile would be, almost as tall as my garage. My wife definitely was not happy when she got home.
But what fun I had, literally for years afterward, creating borders for my driveway and parking area and incorporating the deep blue color into the fieldstone of my walking paths and seating areas. I used the rest for solid bluestone walls, raised garden beds and terrace borders.
When the last survey was done of that property, I was thrilled to find that every patio, seating area, terrace and path had been included by the surveyor into the document. It was testament to something I had created that was actually architectural and long lasting and hopefully to be enjoyed by generations to come.
While a writer and publicist, Bill Primavera is also a realtor associated with William Raveis Real Estate and Founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc. (www.PrimaveraPR.com). To engage the services of The Home Guru to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.