Archive for the ‘Oakland stone’ Category

Oakland stone landmarks: The McElroy Fountain revisited

9 January 2023

I made a brief post about this fountain a few years ago — it was the first “Oakland stone landmark” post — but a reader’s question pushed me all the way into a worthy rabbit hole.

When John E. McElroy died unexpectedly on 24 March 1909 at less than forty years of age, the city of Oakland mourned a public benefactor whose unborn child would never know him. As the City Attorney, McElroy wrested back Oakland’s waterfront lands from the railroad, undoing one of the great crimes of our founder, the scoundrel Horace Carpentier. He also helped establish our reputation as a legitimate City Beautiful in a way that went beyond grand boulevards and splendid public buildings: children’s playgrounds. He was elected four times; the last time both the Democrats and the Republicans endorsed him.

Park Commissioner James Edoff, a close collaborator and friend, launched a private donation drive to honor McElroy’s memory with a large fountain in Lakeside Park. The design, by Park Commission architect Walter Reed, was submitted in March 1910. A scale model was put on display 7 July 1910, and the Tribune reported, “Granite, marble and concrete are up for the consideration of the commission and as soon as the decision is made and the funds which the city will contribute towards its erection are turned over to the commission the work will begin. It is thought that the commission will decide in favor of the use of granite in the construction.”

Bids came in that August from six companies, including the Raymond Company (whose Sierra White granite clads City Hall) and California Granite Company, and the Colusa Sandstone Company won the job. The city chipped in the majority of the $15,000 needed.

I suspect that the bids fell into two categories: the granite companies could supply their own stone while the other firms could emphasize their skills and connections.

Colusa Sandstone Company was a very successful firm whose quarries, just east of Sites and still visible today, supplied the stone and stoneworkers for some of San Francisco’s finest Belle Epoque landmarks: the Ferry Building, the Emporium Building, the Kohl Building, the Spreckels Building and more. They could arrange for premium stone from the best sources and finish it to the highest state of artisanship.

That October the Tribune reported, “The basin and other portions of the fountain will be of white marble, for which the city has provided.” Specifically, as other stories reported, it was Georgia marble.

“Georgia marble” was effectively a trademark at the time. Then and today, this stone comes exclusively from Pickens County in northwestern Georgia, west of the former gold rush town of Dahlonega and home of an annual marble festival. The Georgia Geologic Survey described the rock and the marble industry as of 1907, when the state was second only to Vermont in the value of its output. Many buildings in Washington DC use Georgia marble. The statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial sits on stone identical to the McElroy Fountain.

All the evidence points to the Georgia Marble Company’s Cherokee Quarry, located east of Tate, which at the time supplied a coarse-grained stone of white or “clouded” color with light blue-gray bands. See some of it at the historic Tate mansion on the quarry grounds.

Marble is what happens to limestone when it’s buried and subjected to the pressure and heat found several miles underground. Old geologic reports assign this marble an Early Cambrian age, making it a good half-billion years old. It was originally a body of limestone that collected on the floor of the Iapetus Ocean, which resembled today’s Atlantic in being the result of continental rifting. The metamorphism that turned this stone to marble happened later, in Ordovician time, when plate tectonics forced the coasts of the Iapetus Ocean back together. This continental collision wrinkled and folded the rocks at the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, in the inner Piedmont and Blue Ridge belts.

The bluish streaks are considered to be remnants of bedding in the original limestone. They have a little magnesium in them and a touch of iron.

Cherokee Quarry marble is exceptionally pure and notably coarse grained, both of which account for its strength and endurance.

Now that I know more about this distinctive stone, I expect to recognize it everywhere.

In June of 1911 bids were received on the tiling and mosaic work: “The marble tiling and mosaic work will be one of the most beautiful portions of the fountain. Of four colors of imported marble, the stone will be wrought into designs at the entrances in consonance with the rest of the fountain.” Marbles to be used in the tiling and mosaic are green Verdi antique, white Alaska, or heavily veined Italian, red Numidian, yellow light Sienna and nemesis marble.” (Visit the Getty Museum’s online thesaurus for more on some of these.)

Work on the mosaic was still in progress when the Park Commission formally accepted the fountain on 6 July 1911, only 16 months after McElroy’s death. The fountain was dedicated on 17 September 1911, in an elaborate ceremony attended by thousands. After a series of speeches and musical selections, McElroy’s little boy, John Jr., turned the fountain on. Then Scott’s Band played “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” followed by “America” with the crowd singing along.

Even the water is special. The fountain lies on top of a reservoir that serves the Lakeside Park grounds. It was once (and may still be) fed with groundwater from two wells nearby, perhaps in one of those nondescript little huts in the park.

The 11 years since my previous post have not been kind to this exceptional structure.

Oakland stone landmarks: The Lakeshore henges

14 November 2022

There are three stone circles — little henges — on Lakeshore Boulevard, one near El Embarcadero by the library and two up near Mandana. They all have the same stones, supposedly from the same source.

The first one we all know, but maybe not its name: Astro Circle.

It’s a large ring of stones in Eastshore Park, 120 feet across, with a tree, swings, slides, a water fountain and a nice new toilet on the sidewalk. It was dedicated in 1968, at the height of Apollo fever, and sported various space-related features including a steel “flying saucer” made from a boiler tank by the city parks department. (Read more over at the Oakwiki.) Also this concrete “moon cheese climber” that if anything has gained in charm over the years.

The other two, in skinny little Mandana Plaza Park, on Lakeshore between Mandana Boulevard and Prince Street, are much smaller.

The plaque there, placed in 1958 by the local Kiwanis Club, calls the two rings a “Creative Play Area.” The installation dates from the same period as The Thing in Lakeside Park, when progressive thinkers were reimagining children’s play as vehicles for cognitive and physical enrichment. A Tribune article from the time tells more about the scheme, which was called “Just Imagine!” and originally had three rings and a much more elaborate set of features. Does anyone have old photos of these things?

But yes, I’m here to talk about the rocks. All three circles are made of large blocks of cut and dressed sandstone. Specifically, it’s a medium to coarse grained lithic arenite (mostly clean quartz) with sparse gravel clasts. The grains are angular and subangular, suggesting a nearby source in granitic basement rocks. This block at Astro Circle displays a large mudstone clast; others feature small siliceous pebbles and holes where shale clasts apparently eroded out.

It’s decent material, not good enough for monuments but quite adequate. The blocks are expertly dressed, to judge by the tool marks, and were clearly salvaged from a demolished building.

The newspapers report in both cases that these blocks were once part of the old Oakland High School (1871-95), and were supposedly brought “round the Horn” from Indiana.

It’s plausible that they came from Oakland’s first high school, a fine old building at Market and 12th that the city was very proud of.

Bancroft Library image

The stones would have come from elements of the experior like window ledges, pediments, lintels and archways. Most of the building was probably faced with timber. I’ve found no record of its construction details in the newspapers.

It’s plausible that the parks department rescued the stones and left them in a boneyard for sixty years until the enterprising Amedee Sourdry found a new use for them. (I think his agency was behind the recycled boulders of Lakeside Park, too.)

However, I can’t vouch for the bit about Indiana sandstone coming by sea around the Horn, especially (as some say) in the form of ship’s ballast. I don’t know enough yet to say for sure, but Indiana was more of a coal-producing state than a stone-quarrying state at the time. I also can’t quite square the character of the sandstone with the geology of the state. It’s more like a California-style sandstone.

I also feel skeptical about the economics of producing this not-quite-premium material, then shipping it to New Orleans for a long, perilous sea voyage to California. The transcontinental railroad was finished in 1869, so the school’s architects more likely arranged for a load of finished stone to be fabricated to order and delivered by rail. Maybe even from Indiana. It would be bragworthy.

Just stuff to ponder as I sit and watch the kids play on the moon cheese climber.

Rocks in the gutter

9 May 2022

Down in the Chinatown and Produce District area, we have some special rock-lined gutters, ranging from fine . . .

to crude . . .

to funky.

They’re the nearest thing Oakland has to cobblestone streets, and they serve the same purpose: heavy duty traffic.

The variety of these gutters suggests that they were emplaced over a long period, under various city contracts. Given that, it’s probable that the stones come from several different sources. But nearly all of them are basalt, the fine-grained, gray to black lava erupted from volcanoes up and down the western states.

These days basalt is a fancy stone, as seen in finer landscapings like the courtyard of Berkeley’s new School of Public Health building. These are natural hexagonal cooling columns of basalt, like those up at Devils Postpile in the high Sierra, cut and polished for elegant seating.

But our gutters are lined with prosaic basalt. And I think some of it came from our own hills. The Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve includes the grounds of several former quarries that produced basalt rock. In 1906, State Mining Bureau Bulletin 38, The Structural and Industrial Minerals of California, reported on the first of these, the Ransome Quarry: “This quarry is on the Old Fish Ranch road, about 5½ miles from the Oakland City Hall. It was opened in April, 1904. A tramway 600 feet long carries rock from the quarry face to the crusher at side of road. The rock is a fine-grained basalt, and is used for macadam and concrete. Some gutter rocks are sorted out. The rock is hauled to Oakland and Berkeley by wagon.”

Sibley’s lava flows aren’t the enormous, massive ones of Oregon and Washington’s Columbia River Basalt, a genuine Large Igneous Province widely attributed to the hotspot that now underlies the Yellowstone region. The Sibley volcano is a dinky thing with a lot of different deposits ranging from ash beds to proper basalt.

I like to think that a couple workers up there kept their eye on the rock and picked out good bits for this premium trade. I imagine that those are the rough gutter blocks. The later street contracts probably used more economical, higher quality material from farther away, like the North Bay counties or even Black Butte up near Orland.

Nowadays, for better or worse, we keep it simple and use concrete or asphalt, even though the work needs more repairs.