A classic interiorexterior material option for ageless appeal

by Bob DeCampo

By Bob DeCampo

Although Bethel White granite has been used in many different
building applications over the last 100 years, it has most recently found itself
to be in demand for exterior as well as interior construction of churches. The
stunning white appearance of this material, which is only quarried in the small
village of Bethel, Vt., by the Rock of Ages Corporation, has led to it being
specified in a majority of projects by the Latter- Day Saints of the Mormon
Church. Not surprisingly, the founder of the Mormons, Joseph Smith, was born in
the neighboring community of South Royalton, Vt. Even with this obvious
connection, the stone has come to earn its own reputation based on its quality,
durability and physical appearance.

Granite was first extracted from the Bethel quarry in the late 1700s for use
as millstones. Commercial quarrying of Bethel White for use as a building
material started around 1900, when two quarry companies–the E.B. Ellis Granite
Co. and the Woodbury Granite Co.–commenced operations on the site. In 1905, a
rail spur was added from the quarry to the main line, which allowed commercial
growth of the business. During the period immediately following construction of
the line, the quarry supplied granite for several major buildings including
Union Station (1907) and the U.S. Post Office (1910), both in Washington D.C.
Rock of Ages Corporation purchased the quarry from the Woodbury Granite Co. in
1958, but not before Bethel White granite had been supplied to produce the
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as well as many banks, libraries and state
capitols throughout the country.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, stone fell out of favor as a building material
and eventually production at the quarry dwindled to minimal levels. During this
time, the quarry operated only a few months a year. In the early 1980s, the
material was re-discovered by the European stone industry and exports of Bethel
White blocks gradually increased. During this time until the early ’90s, almost
90% of the material from the quarry was exported to Europe for building
purposes. In 1986, Bethel White was specified for the construction of the Mormon
Chapel in Friedrichdorf, Germany, which became the stone’s first application for
use in a religious structure. In 1991, the famous architect I.M. Pei selected
Bethel White for the construction of the Stone Tower project, another major
religious building located in Kyoto, Japan. Throughout the ’90s, Bethel White
has been specified for the construction of numerous temples and meeting houses.
The largest and most famous of these is the Bountiful Temple just outside of
Salt Lake City, Utah.

When deciding on stone as a construction material for a major project, the
church needs to take several factors into consideration. Of course every project
has budget concerns and constraints, but the reality of using granite, which may
have a higher up-front cost then other less expensive materials like brick or
wood, should mean lower maintenance and repair costs in later years. Today’s
technology allows for thinner pieces of granite or veneers to be hung on steel
framing instead of the large, heavy and thicker pieces used in early
construction with their thicker masonry joints that required maintenance and
replacement over time. By today’s construction methods, this approach results
initially in savings in the volume of granite required to complete the project,
plus a more structurally sound building. This fact, plus the durability and
beauty of granite, make a winning combination that saves money in the long run
while providing an outstanding building value. This is why it is extremely
important to select an architect with previous experience in designing stone
buildings. Work closely with the architect during the design stages and fill
them in on color shading and preferences. Then let them provide you with a range
of materials that fits this criteria.

It is also important to decide on a finish for the material selected, as
different finishes tend to make the stone appear lighter or darker in some
instances. For example, the finish of choice on most outside granite-clad
buildings these days is a thermal or flamed finish. This finish is achieved by
passing the slabs under an automatic torch system, which rapidly expands the
surface of the granite, causing it to spall away. This type of finish, while
rougher in appearance up close, tends to lighten the color of the stone and help
hide any unwanted defects that may naturally appear in the material. It is also
a very low-maintenance type of finish and quite rustic. If high-quality material
is used, and depending where the building is located, all that should be
required is a good pressure washing from time to time. Of course, larger cities
tend to have more airborne pollutants that can attach to any building surface,
not just granite.

A polished finish tends to darken the natural appearance of the granite,
making it important to select the installation location carefully. While this
type of finish is still used occasionally on exteriors, most polished work today
is found on the interior in the form of tiled floors, bathroom facilities and
various other applications, even altars. Granite is polished modernly these days
by using large automatic polishing machines. The slabs pass under multiple
polishing heads. Each head is equipped with abrasive bricks starting with a very
coarse abrasive brick followed by finer abrasive bricks until, finally, a
buffing brick is used to finish the process of closing the surface of the stone
and producing the mirror-like surface. Being a closed surface, the granite then
becomes less affected by airborne pollutants but also tends to hold moisture
longer. The result: after a lengthy rainstorm, the building with the flamed
finish and open surface will dry out and regain its natural appearance faster
than a building with a polished finish.

The other typical finish specified is a honed finish. Simply stated, this is
a duller version of the polished finish. The nice thing about these different
finishes is that they each give their own contrast to the same stone. So it is
possible to use a combination of finishes with the same or different materials
to establish an aesthetically pleasing visual contrast.

If you’ve decided your building will be clad in stone and you have some idea
about the different finishes available, then the logical next step is to select
the granite. There are as many colors of granite as there are colors of the
rainbow. Direct questions about the materials to your architect specifically in
regards to the American Standard of Testing Methods (ASTM) test results. The
ASTM sets guidelines for all building materials including granites. There are
strict ranges into which the granite must fall for approval. The architect
should be able to obtain these results from the quarrier who has tested its
granite in accordance with ASTM practices for such things as compressive
strength, flexural strength, water absorption and modulus of rupture.

Once narrowed down to a few granites, the architect should arrange to have
mock-ups made for inspection. These are designed to be representative of the
material as it would appear in a small section of the building. This gives you a
better example of the granite than just relying on a 12- by 12-inch sample. The
mock-up also acts as a control for the building, meaning that the material
supplied should match the mock-up as closely as possible. However, be realistic
because granite is a natural material; as such, it can and will vary slightly.
Understand that there is a certain acceptable range for the material and you
need to define this range from the beginning. This helps to eliminate
dissatisfaction or disputes after the stone has been placed on the building. The
mock-ups also give you a chance to see and feel the finish of the granite
firsthand. One word of advice, however: ask for building references. It is worth
the trip to inspect a building that was constructed with the same material
you’ll be using. Check the age of the building and look for signs of weathering.
How does the granite appear compared to the samples presented to you? This is
one of the most valuable things you can do when selecting the material that
will, realistically, last forever.

White granite has been said to have a calming effect over human nature and
seems to be ideally suited for religious buildings. Most of the greatest
churches in the world were fabricated with stone of some sort. It is a nice
feeling knowing that, as we enter the next millennium, we have built–and are
still building–more of these beautiful churches.

Robert J. Campo represents the Quarry Division of Rock of Ages
Corporation. For more information, visit