Baltimore stays true to Formstone

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Despite a 2012 city initiative to ban Formstone on new construction, the cladding remains intact on many blocks throughout the city. Here, a look at the siding that filmmaker John Waters once called “the polyester of brick,” whose history is closely linked with Baltimore’s.

There was a time in the city when it was deemed fashionable and even necessary to hire a company to spackle fake stones to the exterior of your home. One of the more famous companies that would do this for you was called Formstone. Like Babe Ruth, Formstone was born in Baltimore, and will forever be associated with our city. Patented in 1937 by L. Albert Knight, Formstone became so ubiquitous its name has become a catch-all for faux stone facades, the Kleenex of fake stone.

“You see it more and more … on better homes everywhere,” read a peer-pressuring ad for Formstone that ran in The Sun in 1950. The subtext being, the good people are doing this, why aren’t you?

“It was for people who wanted to make their house a castle,” said Joy Sushinsky, a realtor in Hampden. It was intended to make things look clean and uncluttered. Back then, she adds, it was also popular to remove trees in the name of urban planning and take out marble steps in the name of modernity.

Today, the success of the Formstone advertising campaign can be seen in East Baltimore and elsewhere in the city, where dozens of houses, at times practically entire blocks of homes are still encased in Formstone. Some even bear the original brass plaque advertising the stone.

“I don’t have to do anything to it at all,” said Rachel Holmes, who moved into her Formstone-clad rowhome on N. Caroline Street in 1987.

“It keeps the house warmer,” said Rachel’s daughter, Lisa Holmes, who sat with her on the front step. Such insulation was seen as a selling point for Formstone back in its heyday. Another ad from 1957 boasts, “When FORMSTONE is applied to your home, it waterproofs, insulates, stops leaky walls and assures all-weather protection for your comfort.”

Today, Sushinsky, the realtor, said she typically encourages homeowners to have it removed before selling their homes to improve the “curb appeal.”

“I’ve never seen a house look worse without the Formstone,” she said.

Stephen Huppaty of OzCorp Fine Builders said his company typically removes Formstone from about 20 homes a year. “It’s not extremely difficult to do,” he said. Usually, the underlying brick is in good shape, it just needs to be scrubbed and re-pointed. (OzCorp charges around $3500 to remove Formstone from a two-story rowhome.)

Huppaty, who is originally from Australia, sees so much of the stuff he suspects at one point there were incentives – a sort of “refer-a-friend” program whereby people got kickbacks if they could convince a neighbor to have it put on their house.

As recently as 2012, there was an effort to ban Formstone on new construction in the city. That proposal was dropped, according to Laurie Feinberg of the Department of Planning.

Today, the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) acknowledges that Formstone was a historically significant material, and one that had a signifiant visual impact on the city, said Eric Holcomb, CHAP’s director. “There is a debate as to whether that impact has been positive or negative,” he said.

Though CHAP has yet to determine whether new Formstone could be applied to historic property, it does not require Formstone to be removed in order to qualify for a tax credit. “We have approved of the repair of Formstone, and if you’re going for a tax credit… we don’t compel you to take that off.”

Sushinksy said she personally loves the old nostalgic quirk of the old Formstone.

“I own a rental property with Formstone on it, which I love, but everyone tells me I need to remove it,” she said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jean Marbella contributed to this story.