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Marble:The Silent Voice of Strength, Wealth, and Beauty

By Rebecca Davis

marble tile
The Stone of Royalty

In the ancient world, when kings wanted to express their royalty in the clothes they wore, they chose purple. Brilliant and unfading in its hue, exceedingly difficult to obtain (just think of all those thousands of shellfish that had to die!), the expense alone of this mystic dye was enough to say, "I have the wealth to afford the best." And purple, ever after, has expressed a kind of grandeur.

Kings have, through the ages, felt the same way about marble. Brilliant in its polish, unfading in it beauty over centuries ? even millenia ? as well as notoriously difficult to obtain (just think of all those horses straining against that massive weight!), marble has expressed strength, wealth, and grandeur.

No wonder that, to show not only the strength, but also the wealth of our country, reflecting the strength and wealth of the ancient Romans, American leaders have chosen for many of our government buildings to be built in the glowing, unfading beauty of marble. And many American businesses, wanting to show their own durability and quality, have followed suit.

Setting the Standard

In the throes of Reconstruction in the late 1860s, the government of Georgia could not afford to use marble from their very own hills to construct the bulk of their state Capitol building as they wished (and thus used the more readily available and inexpensive Indiana limestone). However, state leaders did still apportion many thousands of dollars to commission the use of Georgia marble for the capitol's interior floors, steps, and wall facings. In this small but striking way, Georgia wanted this product of her own bosom to speak the strength and grandeur that would one day be born of her difficulties.

Walker Zanger Showroom in Las Vegas, with medallion floor design created from Crema Marfil and Giallo Antico Slabs.
Walker Zanger Showroom in Las Vegas, with medallion floor design created from Crema Marfil and Giallo Antico Slabs.

In 1929, Chief Justice William Howard Taft, who had been President, also dreamed of "a building of dignity and importance," but this time on the federal level, to house the Supreme Court, who had not had a permanent home in its 140 years of existence. Though building styles had changed in the hundred-plus years since the first government buildings had been built, architect Cass Gilbert wisely chose to blend the style of this building with the surrounding ones, using three million dollars' worth of marble gathered from quarries around the world. For the exterior, he used tight-grained, bright white Vermont marble. For walls and floors, creamy Alabama marble. And for the inner courtyards, the crystalline-flaked marble from Georgia.

Tennessee, too, boasts a deposit of marble used in government buildings. In fact, its distinctive pink and cedar marble was the only choice for the huge addition currently being made to the U. S. Capitol for a visitors' center, because that was the stone used in the original structure. Tennessee Valley Marble, whose industry was born in 1838 with the building of the nation's capitol, is now producing more than 500 tons of cedar marble for the 580,000 square-foot addition, to be used as eye-catching wainscoting, railings, baseboards, and stair treads. The U .S. Capitol Visitors' Center will speak the same strength, wealth, and beauty as the building whose name it bears.

Marble water fountain in the National Archives
Marble water fountain in the National Archives.

Following the Marble Model

Over a hundred years ago, stockbrokers stood as the vanguard of the era when the business of America would become business, and the New York Stock Exchange became their monument to themselves. The marble walls they commissioned for their physical embodiment of the American economy soared 72 feet above the mass of humanity on the marble floor below, a satisfying picture of America's economic strength.

Honed tiles in Ambrato marble, a medium duty marble with a wide variation in color.
Honed tiles in Ambrato marble, a medium duty marble with a wide variation in color.

With similar ideas in mind, architect Albert Kahn designed the General Motors Building in Detroit in 1919. No expense was spared, no luxury overlooked, as the office designed for the forward thinkers of the Roaring Twenties nodded and smiled at the Old Days with a style taken from the Italian Renaissance, including dramatically striking pillars of solid marble and glistening inlaid marble floors.

Restoring the Beauty

But then, after hundreds of years of standing tall with dignity, marble temporarily fell out of favor. In the middle part of the last century, architectural tastes changed, as, obsessed with being "modern," architects and designers eclipsed exterior marble with their modern designs of glass and steel. The look of marble for building facades seemed as old-fashioned as it was expensive, and quarries closed.

Marble medallion of Phantasia Rose in the stairwell at the National Archives.
Marble medallion of Phantasia Rose in the stairwell at the National Archives.

Time passed, however, and almost imperceptibly there came a point in our culture when even the word modern began to sound old-fashioned. Commercial architects, designers, and builders began to look once again to the past, with the confidence born of strength, this time in technology. After all, an impressive array of mammoth new tools, including computer-directed precision saws and pneumatic polishers, had become available to expedite quarrying and fabrication. Once again the vanguards of a new era are looking at the timeless beauty they see, still standing tall, in the marble edifices around them.

Now, as people reach back to the strength and stability of the past, classically historic buildings are being restored to their former beauty,. In the 1990s, New York's Grand Central Station underwent a 200-million dollar renovation, which included adding a new marble staircase that had appeared in the original blueprint but was never built. The glistening walls reflect lights from the impressive chandeliers, as nothing but polished marble can do.

Floor medallion in Phantasia Rose and Andies Grey at the National Archives.
Floor medallion in Phantasia Rose and Andies Grey at the National Archives.

Perhaps one of the most impressive recent renovations involving marble has taken place in the National Archives Building. The architects requested marble from the original quarries, which included Tennessee Valley Marble, who supplied over two million dollars' worth of pinks, cedars, and Andies grey. "President Clinton wanted to make the facilities acceptable for the Americans with Disabilities Act," explains Tom White, owner of the company. "That meant that, among other things [like marble walls, marble floors, marble benches, and marble water fountains], we had to make new marble cases to hold historic documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution." Tom and his wife stood in line with other visitors to view the documents, feeling a great sense of satisfaction at the appreciation they observed in those around them, not just in seeing these irreplaceable national treasures, but in the appropriate grandeur within which they were encased. Tennessee Valley Marble felt that this was a fitting tribute to the government whose buildings their marble had helped to create. The beautiful and decorative Tennessee marble "has been used so extensively throughout Washington," says Tom White, "that it's easier to list the buildings without it."

Royal pink sandblasted marble walls at 2099 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Royal pink sandblasted marble walls at 2099 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Enduring Stone

Today marble has reached a new pinnacle of popularity. Architects and designers are observing and evaluating marble as it has been in use in government and commercial buildings for over a hundred years, and seeing that it does indeed stand the test of time, as few stones can. It is being used in newly-constructed hotels, houses, office buildings, and condominiums as never before. As an external building stone, its low rate of absorption makes it virtually impervious to modern-day pollution, and a high-pressure hose on a sandblasted or splitface finish can easily restore its original beauty.

For bathrooms, the virtual imperviousness of marble to the effects of water make it tower over vinyl as a Michelangelo would tower over a child's soap carving. Its range of colors from shades of gray to pink, red, beige, and brown, to the rare and coveted Vermont Cavendish Green lends it easily to any decor. When these stunning blocks of marble are polished, the most casual observer can see why the ancient Greeks named it marmaros, "the shining stone."

Marble's high resistance to abrasion, in addition to its beauty, makes it the ideal stone for floors. Observers of hundred-year-old buildings can see that thousands of scuffing heels have barely made a mark in this dense, crystalline surface. For walls and floors, honed marble, with its satiny, non-reflective surface, reflects nothing but the full color of this beautiful, variegated stone. A new office building in Washington, D. C., modestly called 2099 Pennsylvania Avenue, makes the most of these stunning features of marble, combining it with glass and metal to create a timeless look in a simple but elegant pattern. In the Madison Avenue Professional Building in Memphis, Tennessee, the same goal is accomplished with White Cherokee textured marble from Georgia Marble Company, supplied by Barden Stone.

A three-piece floor medallion, individually crafted in the Old World tradition, with the variation in color, texture, and design that are inherent characteristics of handworkmanship, contributing to their distinctive beauty.
A three-piece floor medallion, individually crafted in the Old World tradition, with the variation in color, texture, and design that are inherent characteristics of handworkmanship, contributing to their distinctive beauty.

Royal pink sandblasted marble walls at 2099 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.
Royal pink sandblasted marble walls at 2099 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.

"Now, architects understand the value of marble and other stones to highlight both their modern and traditional spaces," says Jonathan Zanger of Walker Zanger in Mount Vernon, New York. "Just look at the work of Philippe Stark and many of the other hip young designers and architects, and you'll see that marble is one of their preferred materials, just used in a different, cleaner, less ornamented way." For over fifty years Walker Zanger has been involved in this trend, creating stone and ceramic tile collections for homes and businesses, becoming one of the most comprehensive stone and ceramic tile companies in the world. Their new series of marble tiles, moldings, and mosaics is designed to fit the trend of the cleaner, more geometric format. Their less expensive terrazzo chips can give designers even more economic flexibility, to increase the strength of the design element without sacrificing elegance and style.

From the pure white edifices of ancient Greece and Rome to the swirling patterns that have inspired countless computer-generated simulations, marble has epitomized the quintessence of beauty from one generation to another. Because of its exceptional strength and endurance, it became, from long ago, a symbol of immortality. What better stone to evince the essence of refinement in taste and to symbolize success? For us, marble accomplishes what it did for the emperors, as it speaks with silent eloquence its voice of strength, wealth, and beauty.

(Article from Building Stone Magazine)