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Stone Truths

Little Castles Looks at Our Love/Hate Relationship with Formstone


Rock of Ages: Little Castles chronicles the history and mystery of Formstone.

Little Castles

Director:Skizz Cyzyk
Genre:Film, Documentary, Local Interest

By Brennen Jensen | Posted

John and Mary Durkin stand before their Highlandtown rowhouse, surveying the block.

"I remember when it was red brick," John says, glancing around. "It looked like a shantytown. [But then] a man came in with Formstone and made it look like Hollywood."

Welcome to Little Castles, a documentary that turns the camera lens on Baltimore's most ubiquitous yet overlooked physical phenomena: Formstone. Love it (like the Durkins) or loathe it (like the Canton and Federal Hill residents who pay to have it pried off), the cement-based faux stone is a trenchant symbol of the city. Crabs are eaten all across the country. Rowhouses line streets from Boston to Atlanta. But for better or worse, Formstone is truly our own: invented in Baltimore, and applied more here than anywhere else.

Despite Formstone's wall-to-wall presence, Little Castles is one of the first in-depth, historical examinations of the concrete creation. And the 30-minute film--produced and researched by Lillian Bowers, directed and edited by Skizz Cyzyk--uncovers numerous little-known facts about Formstone, which first began changing the city's face some 60 years ago.

The Formstone project began not in the film world but in the dream world. Six years ago, Bowers explains, she dreamed her grandfather's Baltimore gravestone was being covered with Formstone. The vivid image both shook and fascinated her.

"I started thinking that the city is just covered with this stuff and I didn't have a clue about it," Bowers says. "I started doing a lot of research and soon found it to be a fascinating facade with a really interesting social history."

The film makes only scant use of a narrator. Instead the Formstone story unfolds largely from the mouths of the men and women who made it, sold it, bought it, and installed it (rounded out with historians, academics, and such colorful characters as filmmaker John Waters and the SoWeBo resident who "Formstoned" his car).

Noel Knight--son of the father of Formstone--Albert Knight, explains how the wall treatment was invented in 1938. "Knight designed it to be put on single-family, suburban houses and also houses with additions where you wanted to unify the look," Bowers says. "The fact that it ended up [in the city] stunned him. Once he saw the potential he just went with it."

Little Castles also reveals that Formstone's predominance in working-class neighborhoods has more to do with practicality than aesthetics. Local historian Dean Krimmel (formerly with the Baltimore City Life Museums) says that "without Baltimore brick there would be no Formstone." Much of the locally made brick was porous, brittle, and leaky. Formstone salespeople promised homeowners that for the cost of three paint jobs, their exterior-maintenance worries would be over.

"That's why you don't see Formstone on good, hard, glazed bricks like in expensive neighborhoods," Bowers says. "Mount Vernon, Bolton Hill, Charles Village, all these have good brick."

One high-profile (if little-known) Formstone project is the rectory of the Basilica of the Assumption in Mount Vernon; it was Formstoned to match the cathedral's gray stones. The film also shows Formstone in posh Guilford: Albert Knight lived there and he had the inside of his basement--though not the outside of the house--Formstoned.

The filming of Little Castles began back in 1995 and was halted occasionally by financial problems. (The film's nearly $20,000 budget came from grants, fund-raising events, and donations, as well from the filmmaker's pockets.) Though problematic at times, it was largely a labor of love.

"I really liked interviewing the people in the neighborhoods," says Cyzyk, a well-known figure in local film circles (both as a filmmaker and as the proprietor of the Mansion Theater). "We would have my van full of equipment and crew and just drive to neighborhoods with a lot of Formstone and knock on doors until somebody would talk to us."

The equipment scared some folks out of commenting, but most of the stoop-front encounters were friendly and informative (and most interviewees truly like their Formstone). Both Cyzyk, who grew up in Baltimore County, and Bowers, an ex-Washingtonian, took pains to not be viewed as outsiders bent on poking fun at blue-collar Baltimore.

"We weren't out to make fun of anyone," Cyzyk says. "We weren't putting anybody on the screen to make them look bad."

The film is the first product of the Formstone Foundation, a nonprofit group Bowers established to promote local filmmaking. She hopes to have Little Castles shown on public television, and to enter it in film festivals across the country. Cyzyk stresses that Little Castles is geared to a general audience, "so that someone in the middle of Kansas will be able to get it." (Cyzyk tried in vain to get filmmaker Barry Levinson to explain for Little Castles that his movie Tin Men was supposed to be about Formstone salespeople but the product was switched to aluminum siding because people outside of Baltimore wouldn't understand what Formstone is.)

The film includes footage of new Formstone being applied (around a door frame). The hand sculpturing involved is surprisingly artistic, and ends with a spray of mica chips to give it sparkle. Also shown is a more common sight: Formstone being pried off of a house with a crowbar. Formstone and the "little castles" it created are largely under attack today. (While conducting research for the film, Cyzyk spoke with a man who put two kids through college by removing Formstone.)

Though it's steadily being destroyed, the funky faux rock is hardly endangered. Even many preservationists and architects are beginning to consider Formstone a layer of history rather than just an unsightly blight. In any event, Little Castles is a warm, elegant, and informative look at this humble bit of Baltimoreana.

"I think [Formstone] is beautiful," John Durkin says in the film's final scene. "I think it will last forever."

The screening of Little Castles is free with admission to the Maryland Historical Society but advance registration is required. Call (410) 685-3750, ext. 372. The screening will be followed by a discussion with producer Lillian Bowers, Eric Holcomb of the Commission of Architectural and Historical Preservation, and original Formstone salesperson Fred Schruefer, who appears in the film.

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