William & Mary

Ugly Stone

It may be unsightly, but we’ll take a few tons just like it

  • Plans and samples:
    Plans and samples:  Drawings for reconstruction of the Brafferton steps weighed down by samples of the existing, 18th century steps (left) and some of the stone available from English quarries. Susan Kern hopes to find the original quarry, though.  Photo by Joseph McClain
  • Stone under glass:
    Stone under glass:  Susan Kern examines some of the grain of a sample from the 18th century steps of the Brafferton, held by Chuck Bailey. The two lower courses on the south side are original stone.  Photo by Joseph McClain
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Chuck Bailey has looked at a lot of stone, but says this is some of the ugliest stone he has ever seen.

Bailey is professor and chair of William & Mary’s Department of Geology, and says this particular stone is so drab, so geologically lackluster, that it was like holding a chunk of concrete. However, looks can be deceiving. The stone has an illustrious pedigree that has sparked a transatlantic search for its origin.

Susan Kern, the director of W&M’s Historic Campus, has enlisted Bailey’s assistance in tracing the stone, which currently makes up the exterior steps of the second-oldest building on campus: the Brafferton.

“The steps were holding moisture and were constantly wet,” Kern said. “And so we tried to figure out why. The thought was that the steps were sinking toward the building. In fact, we discovered that they’d been repointed with a cement mortar that was trapping moisture, and the front was rising, rather than the back sinking.”

She added that the steps are perfectly sound and safe to walk on now, but their condition is what prompted Kern to set into motion a project that would see both sets of Brafferton steps completely reconstructed. And if at all possible, she would like to use sandstone from the original quarry that supplied the early 18th century steps.

Sourcing the stone requires a history-geology detection collaboration. Both Bailey and Kern believe that the original stones were quarried and dressed in England, then shipped here to Virginia to be assembled on site.

There is still plenty of English stone being quarried, including one marketed as “Dunhouse Blue.” But there’s only a slim chance that the very same 18th century quarry that produced the original Brafferton steps remains in business.

Kern said if they can’t find the original quarry, Dunhouse Blue, quarried in Lancaster, and other options are close enough to provide a satisfactory substitute. Bailey said that a geologist would describe Dunhouse Blue as a Paleozoic sedimentary rock. He also said the Dunhouse Blue samples offer a distinct advantage: They’re much more attractive than the original Brafferton stone.

“To me, it’s a very bland-looking rock,” he said. “I’m not giving it high marks for appearance, and I’m sorry the provost has to walk over them twice a day.”