New England Stone Walls, An American Stonehenge

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast
…'Good fences make good neighbors'.
                                                               from the Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall”

04-weir2Homestead of J. Alden Weir with a dining room addition designed by early 20th century architects, McKim, Mead & White

Wall-making and mending is an ancient and necessary activity, forming the very foundation of culture and society. Walls are as vigorously formative of civilization as are its laws. Wall-mending and maintenance can serve as the metaphor for justice.  While barriers define, they also encourage personal freedom and productivity by allowing boundaries within which individuals, families, and businesses may conduct their creative efforts and industry. In making a wall, the builder needs to know what he is “walling in and walling out;” is he a maker or a breaker of margins and limits? This month, Steve Chambers, Dallas architect, and I flew to New York City and then drove to Connecticut to be with friends to see these walls.

We were already familiar with the thrill of NYC from visits to our son who lives there, but were totally unprepared for the beauty of Connecticut. Some dismiss the little towns above Manhattan as “bedroom communities.” But, to categorize them this way is to miss the point of their history and restorative value.  Our hosts in Connecticut advised that we take a tour of “the walls” at Weir Farms. Ever game for art, adventure, and history, the suggestion did not require a hard sell.  After settling into their Wilton, CT locale, we piled in an SUV and headed for Weir Farm, a National Historic Site that is the only national park devoted to an artist and home to three generations of American artists.  Julian Alden Weir, a leading figure in American art was also a prominent figure in the development of American Impressionism. Today, the 60-acre farm, which includes the Weir House, Weir and Young Studios, barns, gardens, and Weir Pond, is one of the nation’s finest remaining landscapes of American art. A ranger-guided tour is a surprising walk from the formation of the earth to the creation of the New England walls.02-engbarn2English barn currently being restored, along with other properties on Weir Farm. After their current preservation, all structures are scheduled to open to the public in the fall of 2012.

Ranger Allison Herrmann began our walking tour with a description of "glacial erratics," large masses of rock, often as big as houses, which were transported by glacier-ice and lodged in prominent positions in the valleys or scattered over hills and plains. When farmers settled and began to clear the forests, they took the smaller rocks and threw them on top of the ones that were too massive to move. "Thrown" walls formed and can still be seen criss-crossing the New England landscape. The period between 1775-1825 is called the Golden Age of Stone Walls in New England, as the more skillful Italian masons were engaged to construct "laid" walls in 2-stone over 1-stone patterns to increase their stability.

Stone pens were developed to hold farm animals and stone formed the foundation for wood structures. The best of both worlds soon developed: the "stack and fill" wall, two laid walls with smaller stones thrown in the middle."Thrown" walls moved every winter when the ground froze, sending rocks tumbling from the walls. The reason "laid" walls and the "stack and fill" walls have lasted longer than "thrown' walls is that the stonework is set 3 ft. below the ground line (grade) at the frost line. The invention of barbed wire in 1874 and the Industrial Revolution made the labor-intensive and more expensive stone walls obsolete. Their construction after the late 1800s becomes a decorative feature of the farms and a vehicle to define individual property.

At the end of our tour, we find ourselves musing about the poem Mending Wall by Robert Frost, American poet, Pulitzer Prize winner, and keen observer of rural New England landscapes. Who doesn't love a wall...particularly ones that tell us such rich narratives as these?

The gallery below contains: the sketches by Steve Chambers, Dallas residential architect, of the three wall types discussed; photos of structures on Weir Farm showing stone walls and foundations; and examples, in order of age of construction, of "thrown," "laid," and "stack and fill" walls.

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall…