The pros come to Seattle to teach the ancient craft. “These are exactly the same techniques used more than 7,000 years ago . . . We can’t improve upon it,” says renowned stone mason Andrew Loudon.
“I HAVE A HAMMER, a bucket and a string line. You use your hands and your eyes to build dry stone walls,” says world renowned stone mason Andrew Loudon. The Brit, who has worked with British sculptor and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy on several projects, was in town earlier this summer to help re-imagine and rebuild a crumbling old stone grotto at Villa Academy in the Laurelhurst neighborhood.
Loudon arrived in Seattle fresh off building dry stone walls in three gardens at London’s famed Chelsea Flower Show. And went right to work on a Seattle hillside beneath native conifers, training locals in the ancient art of stone-walling. “These are exactly the same techniques used more than 7,000 years ago in Neolithic villages. We can’t improve upon it,” says Loudon. Will he dish on working with Goldsworthy? “Andy has bloody good ideas,” says Loudon, and leaves it at that.
Local landscape designer Cameron Scott of Exteriorscapes, stone mason and teacher of the craft for more than 20 years, organized the workshop as an opportunity to fund the grotto’s rebuilding. Scott points out they’re not renovating — the grotto was in such bad shape, it needed to be torn down. The workshop crew was pretty much starting over, guided in their design by the original. The new grotto will be used as a place of gathering and reflection, dedicated to the Sisters of Cabrini, who moved their mission to the Laurelhurst site in 1914.
Workshop attendees had the chance to stack stone alongside Scott, Loudon and Dean McClellan, a stone mason from Ontario known for his skill in historic restoration. McClellan is the first and only master craftsman in Canada recognized by the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain. He’s now engaged in restoring a huge stone amphitheater and gardens at Saugeen Reserve No. 29 in Ontario, where he’s teaching First Nation peoples the art of stone-walling in the biggest such project in North America.
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So what did these high-powered, international experts think of the stone work they’ve seen here in the Northwest? It’d be fair to say they were more enthused about Seattle restaurants, especially the barbecue joint where they’d eaten ribs the night before. “Much of the stone work here is pretty poor quality,” says McClellan. “You folks use so much wood, plus your stone is jagged and angular.”
The original grotto was built in the 1930s as a contemplative space for the nuns who then lived at Villa. “It’s a lost treasure and feels a little haunted,” says Scott of the steep and wooded site.
The 12-foot-high curve of stone, with a fountain and a niche holding a statue of the Virgin Mary, is reached by trekking through an old orchard and down a cedar-canopied pathway. The age of the place is apparent from a gargantuan, tangled wisteria twining around a sturdy, old fir tree. Over the past 70-plus years the grotto crumbled into dilapidation, with laurels growing up to shroud the hillside.
“The old stone work was set in concrete and was all a little haphazard,” says Scott, describing what the team discovered as it cleared the site. But the group also unearthed lots of hand-split Cascade granite that could be reused. All the new work is dry laid, using smaller stones in places, so it’ll be safer for the students and visitors. Dry-laid stone should outlast mortared work by centuries.
“Mortar is sacrificial; it’s meant to fall away,” explains Loudon, who expects the new, drywall grotto to last forever . . . or at least for 150 years.