Artists on a limestone canvas. From tablets of Indiana bedrock, cutters and carvers sculpt the pillars, cornices, and fa,cades of some of the nation's most famous buildings

JOYCE HARMON is a mom and grandma who, when day is done, looks as if she'd tumbled into a flour bin. But she has no tarts or cakes to show for her work. Instead, she has a spectacular piece of limestone carving.

Each workday, Mrs. Harmon's pneumatic gouge scatters showers of limestone snow as she carves scrolls and rosettes on slabs of stone, and by quitting time, all five feet of her is powdered white.

Among her recent sculpting credits are five restoration pieces for the nation's Capitol in Washington, D.C. - an example of the rising restoration consciousness that has blessed the limestone business with a renaissance.

Harmon is employed at the Bybee Stone Company of Ellettsville, Ind., situated along one of the richest and most accessible limestone lodes in the world. Hers is a job usually reserved for men; not because the work is too strenuous for women, but because inhabitants of this farm and quarry country generally follow the traditional male-female job divisions. If Harmon chose to stick strictly to that code, she'd know only the dust scared up by a broom.

But that's no longer the calling for this mother, who did her share of homemaking when she raised six children in Texas. Now she works with Bybee's carving crew. From the carvers' quarters, she can look out into the cavernous mill, where limestone is stacked like a titan's toy blocks.

Using giant saws, cutters slice the 10- to 20-ton blocks to architects' specifications. Those to be embellished are carted to the carvers. Those left plain are transported nationwide to predetermined projects.

Cutters and carvers aren't the same, although now and then a body with brawn and artistic talent can walk a bridge between the two jobs. In short, cutters tailor the limestone, while carvers add the froufrou. Popularized by the 1979 movie ``Breaking Away,'' cutters are a culture unto themselves: craftsmen who need a steady hand and a keen eye to accomplish the straight and geometric cutting. Competition often stirs within these skilled ranks to see who can cut the most, the best.

It's the carving aspect, however, that demands the creative touch. And Harmon, a 10th-grade dropout, had no idea until 11 years ago that she harbored this artistic bent. Her switch from home to career began when ``one day, I just hopped on a bicycle and went down and took the GED,'' she says, referring to the General Educational Development exam, equivalent to a high school diploma.

From there, it was a short step to San Jacinto college in Pasedena, Tex., where she took sculpture, working in marble, unaware that before long she'd be carving marble's kin, limestone, and earning a living at it. (When limestone undergoes extreme heat and pressure in the earth's interior, it's transformed into marble, a metamorphic rock that's more compact and crystalline.) Harmon apprenticed in limestone carving at a Texas mill and graduated cum laude from the University of Houston in 1980.

Harmon labels limestone carving ``a new lifetime adventure.'' And so it is. At home, she's working on seven panels, four feet tall, that will form a wall depicting in relief the Bible's book of Revelation. Fortunately, her husband, Ben Harmon, knows how to help with the heavy work on the panels, because he's been around stone mills all his life. He now operates an overhead crane at Bybee.

On warm spring days the Bybee carvers' quarters stay cool, and the mill's dogs nap, oblivious to the saws that sing with a bzzzz and brrrr. Harmon, working from a blueprint, transfers a pattern onto her limestone block, which rests squarely on sawhorses. Down the way, Bybee's youngest carver, 25-year-old Jeff Leisz, stops to watch.

``The pattern just gets it on the limestone. The variance comes in detail and depth,'' says Mr. Leisz, explaining that there's much room for interpretation in carving.

``You take the leaves, for instance,'' he says. ``Now Henry [Morris], he likes his leaves to roll real deep, like a spoon.'' So how does Leisz like his leaves? ``Well, I like 'em just the way Henry likes 'em,'' he says, laughing - because Henry Morris is a master carver and head carver at Bybee. And an exacting boss, says Leisz.

Leisz started as a cutter right out of high school, then was given a try at carving when the workload on the fancy side of the business got extra heavy. He had the knack.

So under Morris's tutelege, Leisz has become a full-fledged carver. He's one of the few who can swing back and forth between cutter and carver - the former he terms ``more of a sport,'' and the latter, ``more of an art.''

Clarence Hayes is well-acquainted with this art. At 78, he's Bybee's eldest carver, having apprenticed years ago with an Italian master craftsman. ``When I was a little kid, carvers were still using wooden mallets and chisels,'' recalls Mr. Hayes, whose hands are webbed with white, where limestone is embedded in wrinkles and cracks. Looking back, he remembers working on the general run of brackets and leaves, but also angels and a 25-foot-tall figure of Jesus that adorned a church doorway.

``And I carved the last piece - six feet long - for the Capitol building,'' he says, with a pride similar to showing off a grandson.

Bybee Stone completed its job on the nation's Capitol last February. The $3 million contract called for replacing crumbling sandstone with Indiana limestone along 700 feet of entablature on the Capitol's West Front, plus the cornice on top of the building.

Three types of sandstone were used in the Capitol's original construction, with the softest going into the carved entablature, according to Wilbur Bybee, who owns and operates both the Bybee mill and the adjacent quarry along with his four sons.

``George Washington's family owned the quarry that sold the sandstone for the Capitol,'' he says. The entablature was simply ``melting away'' after more than 160 years of wear. ``There were 28 coats of paint on it. That's what was holding it together,'' he explains.

As of late, the Bybee mill has been humming. Whenever you take a trip to Washington, D.C., browse through the Smithsonian Institution's new African and Oriental pavilions: Those interior walls are right out of the Bybee quarry. So are the towers - still in process - on Washington's National Cathedral.

In Des Moines, the Iowa State Capitol Building of sandstone is getting a limestone lift from both Bybee cutters and carvers. And Bybee has brought bygone elegance back to Louisville's Seelbach Hotel.

Closer to home, the stone company is matching the original carving on Indiana University's chemistry building.

Indiana's piece of the rock

Indiana's limestone had its beginnings about 330 million years ago, when marine organisms lived in shallow waters similar to the Great Bahama Bank of today. The small creatures' skeletons, shattered and scattered by current, gradually piled up in layers on the sea floor, fossilizing in to the Salem limestone formation.

``There are few deposits like it in the world,'' says Donald Carr, professor of geology at Indiana University and branch chief of mineral resources with the Indiana Geological Survey. ``What makes it so unique is it can be brought out in large monolithic blocks,'' he says, explaining that few beds of impurities intrude into the limestone; intrusions can cause splits and breaks.

The portion of the limestone belt that's suitable as building material meanders over rolling plain for about 40 miles, basically in Monroe, Lawrence, and Owen Counties. Because of this belt, Indiana has a piece of itself in some of the nation's most prestigious spots.

Its limestone was used to build the Empire State Building, Grand Central Terminal, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, and the Pentagon and interior of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Chicago's massive Merchandise Mart and the city's Tribune Tower also owe their construction to Indiana's quarries, to say nothing of the gaping holes left in Hoosierland when limestone was extracted for multiple universities, county courthouses, and state buildings across the United States.

In fact, Indiana limestone has had a hand in so much historic building that the sign welcoming outsiders to Bybee's location says, ``Ellettsville - Builders of American History.''

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