HUFFINGTON POST
10/23/2012 10:16 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2012

Brownstone Quarry Closes -- And So Does A Chapter Of New York Building History

The closing of the last brownstone quarry in Portland, Conn., has left New York City's building history with a huge vacancy.

Portland Brownstone Quarries, a prime Gotham source for the coveted but crumbly facade for centuries, stopped mining in January and should clear the rest of its slabs by early November, owner Mike Meehan told The Huffington Post.

At its peak, Portland rock covered 85 percent of the original brownstone structures in New York, according to Old House Journal. It also was popular in its 1800s heyday with many other port cities on the Eastern seaboard within reach by schooner and then train, including Boston, Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga.

The quarry was flooded by a hurricane in 1938 and remained idle until Meehan reopened six acres of it in 1993, catering to preservation projects.

"What I've always been delighted by is that there are people that want the original material to match what they have on their original projects," he said to HuffPost. "I feel bad that the people who really value that won't have that anymore."

(Watch a 2010 interview with Meehan above.)

Imported Chinese brownstone has become a popular substitute, but it's not the same iron-stained arkosic sandstone found near the banks of the Connecticut River, Meehan said. That rock spawned a brownstone construction boom in the 19th century. It became a convenient source for row-house developers to face their brick buildings with the pliable stone, the New York Times reported. (We often call them listing-friendly "town homes" now.)

"We’re all scrambling to grab that stone," New Jersey stone fabricator George Heckel said to the paper. "If you’re thinking about achieving the look and feel of a New York City brownstone, you’re not going to get that anymore."

The stone has its critics, too, the Times pointed out. Timothy Lynch of New York's Buildings Department once heard the complaint that it was as if New York City were covered in "cold chocolate." Author Edith Wharton called it "the most hideous stone."

But to anyone buying or admiring New York real estate, brownstone has become a status symbol.

During the 19th century, Portland shipped 5 million cubic yards, including to the Manhattan estate of railroad magnate William H. Vanderbilt, the Hartford Courant reported. Nevada "silver king" James C. Flood had the brownstone freighted around Cape Horn to San Francisco.

Brownstone fell out of fashion in the 1920s, and much of it in New York has been replaced by a brown cement-based composition, the Times said. But to brownstone holdouts, Portland will be missed.

Meehan, 63, of Cheshire, Conn., was hydroseeding the pit's top soil in a reclamation effort before he closes up shop entirely. An architectural era will retire with him.

"It's been a very enjoyable career," he told HuffPost. "It's been very rewarding, but probably not the best business decision I've ever made."

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