It’s Time We Talked About Formstone Pt. 1

Anatomy of A Rowhouse
baltimore formstone row

(Image courtesy of schmootography.com)

We like to talk building materials here at BBBB, and we’ve regaled you with tales of joists and studs, bricks and belt courses, struts and cut nails. But we’ve yet to discuss one of the most iconic building materials Baltimore has ever known, the material John Waters called the “polyester of brick”: Formstone.
Formstone has achieved Kleenex-like name recognition, but the word is merely one brand name among a host of other stucco products such as Rostone, Perma-Stone, Fieldstone, and Tru-Stone.
Formstone was but brand name among a host of several stucco products

Formstone was but one brand name among a host of several stucco products

Formstone was patented by Albert Knight, a native Baltimorean, in 1937, but a similar product had cropped up 8 years earlier in Columbus, Ohio. Knight’s patent, granted while he was with the Lasting Products Company, was for a “Process of Making Artificial Stone Wall Facings.”
The product was applied to building facades thusly: wire mesh was fastened to the facade of a building with small nails inserted into mortar joints. Successive coats of plaster were then applied until a desired thickness was reached. Formstone installers then got to work creating the distinctive stone-like appearance with molds, rollers (for texture) and implements for scoring the stucco to create faux mortar lines. The stuccoed facade was then often colored to suggest a wall made from several types of stone.

formstone diagram

Formstone appealed to both form and function-minded folks. Advertisements touted the product as being a wonder-solution to the persistent problem of brick maintenance (we’ll explore this claim in Part 2 of this series). But the product also offered an instant transformation: a simple brick structure could quickly become an imposing stone-fronted masterpiece. As Charles Belfoure and Mary Ellen Hayward note in The Baltimore Rowhouse, Formstone salesmen did brisk business in neighborhoods in East Baltimore that were filled with Eastern European immigrants; the authors suggest that these folks may have been drawn to a product that recalled the stone buildings of the old country. Belfoure and Hayward share a quote from one satisfied customer:
“It looked like a shantytown when it was red brick. The man came and Formstoned it…made it look like Hollywood. That’s the God’s truth.”
Formstone (and similar products) can be found in cities up and down the East Coast, but it feels particularly Baltimorey. Some folks estimate that over 50% of the houses in the city are Formstoned.
Fatz removes Formstone from one of our houses

Fatz removes Formstone from one of our houses

On Eager Street, 27 of the 35 houses had Formstone on them. In the next chapter, we’ll explore why only 1/5 of Eager Streeters went without Formstone, and why they may have been the sensible ones!
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