It’s quite something to see an active quarry still in operation. At Stony Creek Quarry in Branford, Connecticut, an expanse opens deep and wide into the landscape, reflecting a rich history that is embedded in hundreds of buildings all over the United States. Stony Creek Quarry was a favorite of architects and architectural firms like McKim, Mead & White, Cass Gilbert, and Warren & Wetmore, who sought out its famous “Stony Creek pink” granite and placed it within what are now the nation’s most well-known landmarks, including Grand Central Terminal in New York City.
Darrell Petit, taking us on a tour of the quarry
Just in New York City alone, Stony Creek Quarry granite appears as a major structural element in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Macy’s at Herald Square, Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue, Bellevue Hospital, 550 Madison Avenue, the George Washington Bridge, Grand Central Terminal, and many others. But more than just a material of a bygone era, Stony Creek granite has been used not only on restorations of The Battery, at Columbia University, at the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum but also in new construction in the city. You can even find Stony Creek granite in public plazas and on sidewalks.
Its distinctive pink hue comes from the concentration of iron in the potassium feldspar of the granite, formed from the cooling and solidification of magma from volcanic disruptions. It is believed that the granite at Sony Creek was formed 600 million years ago far from present-day Connecticut when South America was originally attached to North America in the giant Pangea subcontinent. As per the book Flesh and Stone: Stony Creek and the Age of Granite, between 120 million and 200 million years ago, Africa split from North America, leaving behind the Stony Creek granite, and then between 60 million and 120 million years ago, South America split from west Africa creating the southern half of the Atlantic Ocean. A rift opened up, but did not fully cleave off the continent, leaving behind the Connecticut Valley.
While this area of Connecticut began as farmland, the salty, rocky terrain made it a difficult endeavor — subsistence farming at best. Fortunes changed with the development of the granite industry starting in the mid 1800s. Quarries “were up and down the shoreline” of Connecticut, says sculptor Darrell Petit on our recent visit to Stony Creek. Petit has worked in all capacities with the Stony Creek Quarry for thirty years, first as a client and now as a de-facto spokesman and keeper of the quarry’s history. Of the twenty or so quarries that once operated on the Connecticut coast, only Stony Creek remains. “New York has always been our primary client, without a doubt,” Petit continues. He estimates that 75 to 85% of their business comes from New York City projects for “institutions that date back to the heyday” of the city.
The quarries provided a livelihood for newly arriving immigrants from Italy and Scandinavia, who brought with them their stone working skills. Proximity to the Long Island Sound offered easy access to waterborne transportation for the unwieldy goods, weighing in the dozens of tons. Railway expansion, along with a building boom during the Gilded Age led to an increase in demand for granite.
Virtual Talk: The Secrets of Grand Central
The stately yet malleable material “proved to be…particularly suited to expressing both the aspirations of the well-to-do and the civic pride of growing cities. The desire to celebrate in stone the achievements of families, private institutions, and governments did not stop with the creation of mansions and imposing institutional edifices. It extended to memorials of past achievements, both in cemetery monuments and in prominently placed public art,” write the contributors to Flesh and Stone: Stony Creek and the Age of Granite. Granite ended up in bridges, parks, buildings, monuments and more, a material that went well with the neoclassical architectural style popularized by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
The base course of Grand Central Terminal, from the balustrades down to street level is of Stony Creek granite
Stony Creek Quarry supplied the granite for the base course of Grand Central Terminal. It’s the stone that frames the storefronts along 42nd Street, all the way around the terminal, rising all the way up to the balustrades of the elevated roadway. Although the rest of the building is in limestone, it’s the granite that is most present at street level to pedestrians. The quarry is also currently supplying granite for the floors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Even in Central Park, you will find Stony Creek granite on the bases of several sculptures like that of Romeo & Juliet, The Tempest and the General Tecumseh Sherman Monument just outside the park.
Romeo and Juliet sculpture in Central Park
Sherman statue on Fifth Avenue
A lot of Stone Creek Quarry’s work in New York City is connected to the restoration of landmark buildings in New York City or the construction of new buildings that need to have an architectural connection to an existing landmark. Petit explains how specific it can get. “Landmarks wants to know, what exactly is authentic? And what is the treatment? This has been a big engagement with us in collaboration with really reputable and venerable institutions. Landmarks is unequivocal. If the quarry is alive, you need to get it from there. And that’s uncompromising,” says Petit.
The pink granite of the steps and ramps of the Statue of Liberty Museum were quarried from Stony Creek for the material’s relationship to the granite in the Statue of Liberty’s base
“Part of my mission is to really be knowledgeable about what specifically Stony Creek did, rather than making these great general statements,” Petit explains. For example, the granite base of the Statue of Liberty is often attributed to this quarry but it actually came from the Beattie’s Quarry in Guilford, which sat right on the border of Stony Creek. Beattie’s also supplied the granite foundations for the Brooklyn Bridge. But since Beattie’s is closed, Stony Creek supplied the granite for the ramps of the new Statue of Liberty Museum. The commission came about because “it was really the desire to link in with the base” of the Statue of Liberty, says Petit.
Stony Creek Quarry has also learned about the long-term benefits of working closely with its clients. In the construction of the new Northwest Building at Columbia University, the granite was going to be sourced from Portugal. Petit made a phone call to a professor he knew at Columbia who passed on the message that Stony Creek had supplied the granite for the original McKim, Mead & White campus. In fact, says Petit, use of this particular quarry was an “ultimatum” by the original architects who used the quarry as a go-to source for projects like the Smithsonian Institute, Museum of History & Technology in Washington D.C., Columbia, and many more.
Columbia then instructed the architects to use Stony Creek, and now the university itself is one of the quarry’s primary clients. “I’ve seen how important it is to engage with the client and then the operators to stay involved. We are the material, but a big chain of events happens in between us, the farm, and the building.” The quarry has since supplied the granite for numerous hardscape projects over the last decade, including the restoration of the entrance to Butler Library, the plaza in front of the Mathematics Building, and is now working on the restoration of the steps and plaza leading to Low Library.
Like all quarries, Stony Creek Quarry has a limited life. It’s the last of the nearly two dozen quarries that once operated in the area. By contract, the quarry also cannot excavate below sea level. As such, these are the last 55 acres, which is surrounded by land trusts from the communities of Guilford and Branford. When the rock is gone, the quarry will close.
Logistically, the quarry workers look for the part of the rock they refer to as a “solidity” which can yield the large blocks that form the basis of the architecture world. These rectilinear units measure 10 x 6 x 4 feet, weigh 25 tons each and “are recognized all over the world as a dimensional quarry block.” But Stony Creek Quarry has been operating so long, it can do custom size orders because it still has the know-how from the time prior to standardization. Petit says, “We did it at one point, we can do it again. Our quarry should not ever really refuse an extraordinary thing like that because of our history and the knowledge of the history.”
One of those custom projects was the sidewalk in front of the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum on the Upper East Side. The large sidewalk pavers that border the museum are 12 feet by 7 feet, first sourced over a century ago from Stony Creek Quarry. With age, the granite got slippery and needed to be replaced. Petit contends that “you can go through New York City and see the world in the ground. And you see the world living in the ground for a hundred years. It’s not like buildings, which are on a 30 year development cycle. For me, it’s wonderful to participate in these great public projects that are for the people. And then it’s there for centuries.”
While the big slabs are now cut with top of the line technology — a diamond impregnated wire, lubricated with wire and pulled to a tension that it can cleanly cut the granite, Stony Creek Quarry still uses all the methods historically available. That includes understanding the natural fractures in the rocks to identify where the rock will cleave easiest, using explosives, drills, sledgehammers, and more. “We’re still working with ancient technology as well as the most advanced,” says Petit.
Due to Stony Creek’s techniques, yield here is significantly higher than the industry average — 35% versus 5 to 10% elsewhere. And the quarry has been good at making sure every possible piece of rock finds its best use. Odd sized blocks will get turned into jetties, rip rap for shorelines, Belgian block, porous walking surfaces, and more for clients like the Army Corps of Engineers. The powdered silica that is a byproduct of the quarrying is getting used by companies to re-mineralize farmland.
Another current project Stony Creek Quarry has been working on is at The Battery in Lower Manhattan, first with the construction of a perimeter sea wall that will protect the park from future superstorms, and now the Battery Playground. The Battery was interested in echoing the granite of the Statue of Liberty. As a result, the people in charge of Federal Plaza, just up the street, is looking to extend that material link too. “That is how New York City works,” reflects Petit.
550 Madison in the background
Another current project is 550 Madison Avenue (originally the AT&T Building) by architect Philip Johnson, which was built with Stony Creek granite. It was this building on Madison Avenue, with its “Chippendale” top that sparked a revival in stone as a building material starting in the late 1970s. Johnson, who had become synonymous with glass curtain wall design, decided that the heat loss was “too great.” That, coupled with the skyrocketing costs of aluminum, made him seek out other materials. Now, Stony Creek Quarry is supplying the granite floor in the restoration of 550 Madison by architecture firm Snøhetta, contractor AECOM Tishman, and developer Olayan in partnership with RXR and Chelsfield. The quarry is also involved in restoration work at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.
Outside of New York City, Stony Creek granite can be found at Yale University, the Newberry Library in Chicago, South Station Headhouse in Boston, the Battle Monument at West Point, the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., and a long list of more locations all around the country.
Darrell Petit’s latest work in progress
As we closed out our tour of Stony Creek quarry, we passed by a work-in-progress by Petit. His sculptures have been installed at Socrates Sculpture Park, Riverside Park, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Peabody Museum of Art at Yale University, Chubu Museum and Cultural Center in Kurayoshi, Japan (a work in collaboration with Cesar Pelli and Associates), the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, and more.
Petit’s sculptures, often monumental in nature, respect the natural properties of the stones. He points out the “black flow” on the rock and how the movement of the sun affects the look. The rocks appear to be holding themselves up by sheer might, in a kind of stasis that might be disrupted at some point in the future — but not quite yet. Petit’s knowledge of the quarrying process has clearly directly influenced his artistic work.
Please stay tuned as we coordinate a future tour of the Stony Creek Quarry (when COVID-19 allows). Sign up for advance notice of this tour here. In the meantime, join us for an upcoming virtual tour of the Secrets of Grand Central Terminal:
Virtual Talk: The Secrets of Grand Central