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Restoring the Future of Barre's Granite Industry
"Restoring the Future of Barre's Granite Industry" The Times Argus, Barre-Montpelier, Vermont. April 7, 1988. Commentary by Philip Cryan Marshall.

The means of keeping Barre Gray out of the red is not a black-and-white issue, as was suggested by the tenor of several articles in last week's Times Argus supplement on Barre's granite industry.

Ninety percent of that industry now is engaged in manufacturing cemetery memorials. So it comes as no surprise that concerns about the future of a declining "death-care" market were addressed. Factors affecting this aspect of the industry were defined to include: a flat, or stagnant, market; erosion of the local industry's market share to competition; and a trend toward less "memorialization" of the dead.

This denies the development of a new Stone Age and a renaissance in urban planning, design and construction in America.

Between 1980 and 1986 there was a 2,100-percent increase in American's demand for granite, mostly from the construction industry. A project entitled The Barre Granite Industry: A Monument To Architectural Artisanry is currently exploring how Barre can claim its fair share of this expanding market by employing existing resources and industry artisans. In doing so, Barre can contribute to the future of its industry and the quality of urban design nationwide.

The project is sponsored by the University of Vermont's Historic Preservation Program with funding provided by Laurance S. Rockefeller and a grant form the National Endowment for the Arts. Significant support for the project initially came from Barre itself, through commitments of in-kind services of $20,000 from the Barre Granite Association and $2,000 from the Trow and Holden Company. Since the project's inception, strong support has been contributed from many members of the industry.

The purpose of the project is to develop Barre's monument-oriented industry to better serve the needs of design professionals working on design and execution of:

    1. contemporary architectural ornament, urban landscapes, civic monuments, and public art;
    2. existing masonry structures, ornament, sculpture and monuments;
    3. complementary additions to historic structures and districts.

We have approached design professionals, national organizations and federal agencies to determine their interest in Barre's products and, importantly, its services: its ability to assist in the design and development of a project.

The professionals include architects, landscape architects, historic preservationists, interior designers, industrial designers, engineers, urban planners and artists. Their clients include federal and state agencies, civic authorities, corporations and developers.

These colleagues visited Barre to work with project team members in evaluating the existing industry resources.

Outside World Discovers Barre

It was no surprise to find that all these professional were amazed at the heretofore unknown capabilities of the industry and its ability to meet their design and production requirements.

They discovered that Barre is an exceptional example of a comprehensive design — and quality-oriented industry whose tradition in sculpting stone ornament has been kept alive, as it were, through the monument business. Here, a complete infrastructure and the support system for the artisan remains intact.

They discovered that Barre industries are in a unique position to provide a wide range of materials, manufacturing and artistic abilities and design services to those professionals who wish to consider employing stone — specifically granite — in construction.

In fact, Barre is one of the country's best examples of an industry that has saved its artistic heritage during the last half-century of modern architecture. By example, it can lead the way for the reintegration of art and architecture.

Twenty years ago there was good cause to wonder if granite could be employed in contemporary architecture or preservation. Since that time the energy crisis, a rise in the cost of competitive construction materials (metal, glass), the development of the Post Modern architectural style, and the need for durable building materials have all contributed to an increasing demand for building stone.

Philip Johnson, the architect who created the modernistic "glass box" architecture in the 1930s, also hearkened its demise when he designed the now-famous American Telephone & Telegraph corporate headquarters — in granite.

Art and Architecture, Old Partnership Renewed

Since classical times, urban planners have employed statuary to harmonize space and mass in cityscapes; sculptural work — statutes, fountains, memorials — become the focal point for other architectural features. This tradition has been revived through the integration of art and architecture and the development of art-in-public-places programs nationwide.

The work of the Barre sculptures is unique. While other centers of the granite industry have lower operating costs or quarry more popular color stock, none can equal the abilities of Barre artists. Even Cold Spring (Minnesota) Granite, which has invested $40 million in its operations in the last decade, cannot compare to the artistic resources available in Barre.

Despite such resources, if Barre chooses as its competition other industries who are producing inferior products, if it exclusively seeks mass production to achieve rock-bottom prices, then it will likely claim a self-fulfilling prophecy. It will all but bury itself and reach an early grave.

On the other hand, Barre can harness its production capabilities to meet the demands of the construction industry, and create a value-added product of the highest quality: architectural ornament and sculpture.

The same pressures that act to discourage cemeteries from employing traditional memorials also serve as a compelling impetus for employing stone in the construction industry. Rising market values of urban property and a demand for the best service-free product have created this tremendous demand for granite in cities — not cemeteries — across America.

The March 5 issue of The Economist describes the increasing role of developers in the construction of corporate headquarters.

It notes, "More developers are abandoning the build-cheap-sell-cheap principals. They reckon that better design and better materials produce buildings that command higher rents and remain fully occupied during the downswings of the boom-bust property market."

To emphasize this trend, the article includes the following caption: "I want that granite, dammit."

Let Barre focus on promoting excellence in its product and skilled labor force. The unique artistic work and fabricated products available in this central Vermont city can be integrated into America's modern, designed environment.

When business and entire industries are filing Chapter 11, Barre is working to write a new chapter in America's history of industrial enterprise and the design arts, a new chapter about Vermont's commitment to quality products, and a new chapter on Barre's ability to meet challenges.

A three-day symposium will be held in Barre, from December 1 to 3, 1988, to address the design potential and use of stone. Design professionals will present case studies to their colleagues. Results of this project, including an industry inventory, will be summarized and available through publication. Members of the industry will host tours, on-site and technical demonstrations, and studio exhibits. The Vermont Department of Development will co-sponsor this event and work closely with the industry and project in its development.

We continue to seek assistance in developing both the project and symposium.

[Caption for photographs]

In 1982 sculptor Michael Heizer came to North Barre Granite Co to execute a commission for the IBM Corporation in New York. The company provided design assistance and fabricated the sculpture using its existing resources. Today "Levitated Mass" stands as testimony to the collaboration of design and industry.