Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A proposed zoning revision threatens to outlaw Formstone, ubiquitous on Baltimore's row house façades. Will anyone care?
Formstone, a stucco faux-stone material, is synonymous with the Baltimore landscape. It covers row houses in blue collar neighborhoods throughout this city; native son John Waters is a devotee.
But Formstone may be on its way to becoming illegal here. The material is banned by Baltimore’s proposed new zoning code. If the revised code is adopted, builders would not be allowed to apply it to new housing, most commercial structures, or even to existing establishments.
Though Formstone is not dangerous, the city included it in its list of banned materials because it looks cheap and tacky. "There's really no good reason [for Formstone's inclusion], that's the honest truth," Laurie Feinberg of Baltimore’s Department of Planning recently told the Baltimore Sun. "We really want people to invest in their homes."
Formstone was patented in Baltimore by Albert Knight in 1937. It’s typically applied in three layers and textured with waxed paper and an aluminum roller. Ads for it once proclaimed it to be "beautiful," "long lasting," and "maintenance free."
After its invention, it became popular as an affordable option for middle-class homeowners to weatherproof their brick row homes, its faux-brick look and texture a slightly more attractive solution than vinyl siding. At its peak in the 1950s, there were two dozen companies applying Formstone throughout town, according to the Sun.
But starting in the 1960s, some neighborhoods (particularly historic areas) began to ban the substance. By the 1980s, Baltimoreans had largely lost interest in the material. Old-House Journal chronicled an increasing rejection of Formstone, devoting four pages of its September 1982 issue to an article titled, "Removing Formstone & Other Indignities." The piece noted that "in recent years, the city has seen more of the gray, lifeless stuff come off than go on."
By the 1990s, few property owners were using Formstone. The material became synonymous with the decay that blanketed most of the city. Still, it maintained a certain lore. Baltimore native John Waters, writer and director of Hairspray, has long admired the material, famously calling it "the polyester of brick." He was asked again for his thoughts on Formstone recently and told Baltimore Sun:
"I thought by now, yuppies would be restoring original Formstone to their recently gentrified rowhouses," Waters said. "And as far as new Formstone? I'm all for it — positively postmodern."
Despite years on the chopping block, the ban generated little buzz until a Baltimore Sun article earlier this month. The Sun argued that Formstone is integral to Baltimore history, even comparing a ban on it to "prohibiting Natty Boh at the corner bar or beehive hairdos at the beauty parlor." The paper’s editorial staff later wrote that the material represents "something honorable in our heritage, and it doesn't deserve the stigma of official civic opprobrium."
Officials see it a little differently. "No one even noticed it [a ban on Formstone] until the Sun came out with that article," Feinberg says. "It’s not even made anymore now. All we did was include it on a list of similar materials, like vinyl siding."
In fact, Formstone is already banned in select Baltimore neighborhoods recently targeted by the city for new residential development.
Few still alive know how to make the material; fewer request it for their houses. The chances of seeing it used for renovation projects today make the ban seem more like a cautious legal formality, protecting the city in the case of an unexpected Formstone renaissance.
Despite the new attention, Feinberg says she hasn’t received much negative feedback. "No formal comments. One angry phone call. We have another meeting tonight so maybe someone will say something then." The proposed zoning revision, Baltimore’s first major update since 1971, will continue to be open to public discussion with a vote expected sometime in 2013.