Henry Morris carved out his career in limestone

Henry A. Morris doesn't look very legendary.

Whitish-gray dust covers him from construction boot to porkpie hat. Tight-lipped he peers through the thick dust to view his handiwork. The large stone block before him is massive and, except for a few newly carved lines, uninteresting.

Yet history and the last shreds of a long tradition reside here.

With chisel and air hammer Morris is carving a block of Indiana limestone - the same strong and durable limestone that went to build the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings in New York, that graces the inside of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, and helped rebuild Chicago after its great fire in 1871.

In times past the nation's best architects turned to this region of southern Indiana for their building stone - and for men like Morris, who could transform it into the architectural ornaments of the day. Half a century ago, 60 to 70 limestone carvers thrived in this region.

Only Morris is left.

The last of the limestone carvers shoves a 1/2-inch chisel in his air hammer and turns to his work. Like a mini-jackhammer, his chisel bites into the stone, sending limestone dust billowing into the chilly air. The motor's reverberations mix with a background cacophony of other pounding chisels, grinding gangsaws, and two overhead cranes that would welcome a little oil.

The sense of emptiness in this cavernous stone mill, however, is more deafening.

About a dozen men carry out various functions within the mill. Five of them are cutters - real-life versions of the blue-collar workers immortalized in the movie ''Breaking Away.'' They are responsible for slicing large chunks of stone into finished slabs and simple pieces for new buildings. In the 1920s perhaps as many as 5,000 employees worked the limestone in this region. Since then, however , the industry has been in a tailspin.

It is no exaggeration, for example, to call Morris the last of the region's limestone carvers. One other Indiana man is involved in the disappearing craft, but he lives in another part of the state. All the carvers here except Morris have retired. Only once in a while does he call on one of them to help out.

''There are some fellows at the university (who carve), but they come out and all they want to do is sculpting,'' he says. His work is not art but craft. ''They call us artisans.''

''This,'' he says, starting to outline a stone leaf, ''all comes from experience.''

The stone Morris is working on now is called a pilaster. It measures about 2 by 2 1/2 feet and sits upside down, because the overhanging leaves are easier to carve that way. With a slightly curved chisel, Morris begins to work his magic on the stone.

He scrapes away the excess stone around the leaf - first in one direction, then another, to make the surface smooth. The face of the leaf needs highlighting lines to heighten the effect. Eventually, he will bevel the sides of the leaf so that, like a pie pan on a table, the figure will look three-dimensional.

''You can tell it's been hand carved, because it stands out,'' Morris explains. Unfortunately, the method is so expensive that many architects do without intricate carving. These days, he adds, all his jobs are restorations of older buildings. His only clients are ''banks or churches. They're the only ones that can afford it.''

Morris doesn't remember right away the destination of the six capitals and two pilasters he is carving. In vain he flips through a small pocket notebook - itself in serious danger of falling apart - where he has written almost illegibly the names and requests of his clients. He will need a total of three months to complete them.

It is not surprising that a carving contract is so expensive - especially for a man who has to measure his working hours by the number of square inches he has carved. Morris allows one full day for each square foot of carving. And he earns about $20,000 a year from his craft.

The problem is that jobs can be few. Periodically during his 34-year career, Morris has had to lay down air hammer and chisel and take up some other line of work. In the early 1960s, he sold life insurance for 2 1/2 years. Later, he contracted to build houses. Sometimes, he cuts stone when there's no carving to be done.

When Morris leaves this craft for the last time, this region's carving tradition is almost certain to leave with him.

What has happened to carving here is nothing new. Technological advances, changes in style, and economic depression have combined over the years to squeeze out other industries that once thrived. But if there is a lesson to be learned in the limestone quarries and mills of southern Indiana, it is the virtue of adaptability.

Morris started working limestone in 1948 as a cutter.

''I could work with the tools and I knew the stone,'' he recalls. So, in 1955 , he became a carver - which required more expertise than a cutter. He earned 25 cents more an hour because of his new job.

''In the '50s there was a lot of work. . . . Each job would be a year or two.''

A postwar building boom was on. Churches and other public buildings, using limestone slabs as their exterior facing, used ornate designs to break up the massiveness of the stone.

Unfortunately for the carvers, architecture was taking a new twist. Mies van der Rohe and other architects were introducing the use of exterior glass walls. Instead of massive stone high-rises, the cityscape was to be planted with glass-enclosed skyscrapers that seemed to float above the ground. The International Style was born. The limestone industry, already hurting from the Great Depression, was heading into 30 years of eclipse.

The effect wasn't felt all at once. This, after all, was boom time for Indiana limestone, compared with the dearth of building in the '30s. But over the years quarries and mills in the region began to fail.

''When I started in the trade, there were 29 limestone mills [in Bloomington] ,'' Morris says. ''Now there are three.''

The industry's decline was especially acute for the carvers. The slabs of stone that the cutters fabricated could conceivably be adapted to the architectural styles of the day. But carved Corinthian capitals and pilasters - blocks of stone that sit atop columns - were tied to a style of architecture that was dying.

They call this tiny area of the world, which produces most of the country's building limestone, ''the Belt.'' That's the name used here, anyway. The result of a series of geological whims, occurring millions of years before the first mammals appeared on Earth, the Belt is a 50-mile gash of exposed limestone that stretches from Ellettsville, Ind., southeast to Salem.

The stone here is prized for its gray-white color, its strength, and its workability. Softer than granite or marble, it could be carved relatively easily - even before the early 1900s when mallets and hand-held chisels were the only tools.

Although the first building using Indiana limestone was constructed in 1819, it was not until the 1870s that attention spread beyond the state. The great Chicago fire, which left that city eager to rebuild with stone, brought a series of notable contracts. And promotional efforts by individuals and companies brought Indiana limestone to the attention of cities as far away as New York and Newport, R.I.

In the next half century, Indiana limestone was used to build thousands of public buildings - from the Empire State Building to the Tribune Towers in Chicago to the original MGM office building in Los Angeles. Intricate ornamentation was one of the architectural vogues - as evidenced by the Cotton Exchange Building in New Orleans, which in 1886 employed 140 cutters and carvers.

But even at the industry's peak in the 1920s, the seeds of decline were being sown. In retrospect, plenty of warning signals had flashed by the end of World War I. Other building materials, such as Portland cement, terra cotta, and brick were elbowing into limestone's traditional markets. Architects, too, were turning away from elaborate ornamentation and, thus, stone that was very easy to carve.

The limestone industry unwittingly encouraged these trends. Long contract struggles between the journeymen stone cutters' union and the cut-stone contractors in the various cities caused many delays. This, in turn, encouraged architects to experiment with the substitute materials. Then, too, limestone companies in the Belt were so eager to capture new contracts that they sold directly to builders and effectively undermined their best source of sales - the network of cut-stone contractors in large cities who had acted as middlemen between local builders and the Indiana mills.

''Indiana won the battle, but lost the war,'' explains William McDonald, executive director of the Indiana Limestone Institute. ''There used to be 17 [ milling] companies within spitting distance of where I'm sitting in the city of Bedford, Ind., and about 30 companies quarrying.'' Now there are eight.

From a peak of roughly 15 million cubic feet in 1929, McDonald estimates, building limestone shipments fell to about 2 million cubic feet in 1971-72. (These are guesses, he emphasizes, because the institute does not keep statistics.)

Now, however, there are signs the industry's tailspin is leveling off. This year McDonald estimates shipments at 1.5 to 1.9 million cubic feet - down, but not too much.

''It's a recovery for us,'' says John Tucker, president of the Indiana Limestone Company Inc., the largest in the Belt. ''There were times when we thought we could just keep getting smaller and smaller and smaller.''

What has happened within the past two or three years, explains Carl Condit, professor of history, art history, and urban affairs at Northwestern University, is a ''disillusionment with the International Style.'' And in its wake have come a crop of architects taking a new look at building stone.

The current spate of skyscraper construction in the United States - such as the AT&T Building in New York - confirms their renewed use. Granite currently is overshadowing limestone because of its wider variety of color and its better durability, says Alan Ritchie, project architect of the AT&T Building, which is clad in granite.

Still, limestone is capturing several notable contracts.

The 32-story American Electric Power Company building under construction in Columbus, Ohio, is almost entirely clad in four-inch-thick Indiana limestone. Since the city is largely built with limestone, ''we elected to go with the same stone,'' says James Kingsland, a partner in the New York architectural firm Abramovitz, Harris & Kingsland, which designed the building.

But if these signs point to a recovery of the Indiana limestone industry - something many experts say is too early to tell - there is no recovery in sight for the carvers. Architects have not gone back to the intricate ornamentation of yesteryear. The AT&T Building is an example of how architectural ornament has been transformed.

''We've taken a lot of those Greek traditional forms and we've simplified it, '' Ritchie says. ''We've trimmed it down and not overelaborated in the style I call high-classical detail.'' This is not only a question of style, he explains, but also expense. Most public buildings these days cannot afford the luxuries of hand-carving.

Three of Morris's ornate capitals are already finished. They lie among the hodgepodge of stacked limestone slabs - Roman ruins that somehow signal the end of an era.

The stone leaf is finished, too. Morris pauses a moment, then takes off his hat to mop the dust and sweat off his brow. His curly hair, hidden until now, looks surprisingly gray.

''I'd love to see it come back. I'd like to take that boy over there and make a carver out of him,'' Morris says, pointing to one of the younger men chiseling a simple shape nearby. But the work hasn't justified an apprentice for the past 25 years.

Finally, he returns to the unfinished pilaster to begin another layer of Corinthian leaves. His chisel hits the stone and sends more limestone dust into the chilly air. It floats upward and seems for a while to merge with the gray sky outside. Then, noiselessly, it begins its descent - either falling to the ground or finding a convenient resting place on a graying porkpie hat.

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