Urban Geology

Lay of the Land
Art by James Wardell

Sitting one day on the stoop of a Manhattan brownstone, I became aware of a streetscape that, with cars, awnings, and trees removed, was a concatenation of brick and stone. I saw a street of bumpy cobblestone, granite curbs and foundations, sidewalks of bluestone, steps of concrete and sandstone, red brick buildings trimmed with marble. Above, on the roofs, I glimpsed slate tiles in many hues.

Then, it hit me: almost none of this material was native. All that I saw, so much of what makes New York New York, was brought from somewhere else.

There is naturally occurring stone in the area: Fordham gneiss and Manhattan schist, the rock formations seen in Central Park, in the Bronx, and in isolated spots on shorelines. But that dark, rough, inglorious material is used mostly for embankments and retaining walls. For every soaring brick or stone building in New York City — and there are many tens of thousands of them — there is, somewhere else, a hole from which that clay or rock emerged.

Some of those elsewheres are in the American Midwest, where there is a preponderance of limestone. In fact, in central Indiana, where limestone is abundantly and usefully found, there is Oolitic, a town that was once named Limestone. It is home to the Indiana Limestone Company, which has provided the stone for many buildings on the East Coast, including, most famously, the Empire State Building.

When I visited the company on a recent fall day, two limestone eagle heads the height of a person stood guard on either side of the entry gate. Stacked gray and white blocks, each the size of a large car and many times the weight, filled a hillside. It looked like a Stonehenge in progress: giant rocks, seemingly too large to ever be moved, resting akimbo, awaiting the knife.

Inside company headquarters, I met Indiana Limestone’s president, Brent Blackwell, an easygoing, jovial man with a shock of brown hair.. Brent led the tour. The two of us maneuvered among the saws, looked up at the twenty-five-ton cranes, and then stopped to watch the moving maw of a diamond-tipped, resin-coated blade as it severed a piece of rock with the dimensions of a New York studio apartment.

“A cut like this used to take hours, maybe a whole day,” Blackwell said, over the noise.

The giant saw, with its four rip heads and six-joint saw heads, sliced the stone at a rate of eight inches a minute. A grayish paste of lime and water drained from the blade’s mouth into a gutter. At the saw’s other end, long, thin, rectangular limestone blocks and slabs the shape of large sofa cushions emerged, many of them with graceful curves, suggesting geometry, art, and architecture.

Blackwell knew I wanted to see the hole that birthed the Empire State Building. To get there, we drove away from the plant along a narrow dirt road. We parked, and walked down a trail lined with small oaks, their fallen leaves crunching underfoot.

The hole was impressive. More than a football field in length and width, it was squatter than the Empire State Building and filled with water. It looked as though one would have to chop the skyscraper in two pieces to fit it back into its womb. Blackwell said the pit was deep. I believed him. I saw green-gray water and no bottom.

During the height of quarrying, many scores of men were down in that deepening pit working feverishly alongside cables and pipes, wooden ladders, electric saws, and the swinging metal arms of iron towers called derricks. Train tracks extended to within a derrick arm’s length of the edge. Buff limestone that had been hidden for millions of years was in months raised from the hole, placed on flatbed train cars, cut and carved, shipped by rail into Manhattan, and then lifted, stone by stone, almost the equivalent of five city blocks, into the sky.

Peter B. Fleischer is writing a book entitled City of Stone, from which this piece is drawn. He lives in New York’s Hudson River Valley.


  1. This is a lovely story. Yes, too often we do not know the stories of these elsewhere places. Thank you, Peter. I’ll eagerly await the rest of the story!

  2. I look forward to reading the entire book. It should be fascinating.

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