The Strong And the Beautiful

Stone walls, aesthetic and practical at the same time, are back in style

Tamar Asedo Sherman.

 Newsday. (Combined editions). Long Island, N.Y.: Oct 24, 2003.  pg. C.08
Full Text (1592   words)

Copyright Newsday Inc., 2003)

A few years ago, Steve and Gillian Antos faced an unusual problem while restoring an old barn in a historic area of East Setauket. The 150-year-old barn was unusable for two reasons: First, a huge black walnut tree, which Antos said is one of the oldest and biggest on Long Island, had grown up next to it, blocking its doors.

Second, the natural slope of the property allowed rainwater to flow under the doors, damaging much of the wood.

The challenge for Antos, a landscape designer and builder, was to restore the historic barn without damaging the tree.

His solution: Dig out the hill behind the barn and shift tons of earth under it, raising the barn 4 1/2 feet to avoid the rain runoff. Then, to support the earth, he built a dry-stone retaining wall with more than 10 tons of flat Pennsylvania stone.

Some builders might have chosen wooden railroad ties for such a retaining wall, but Antos prefers stone.

"Stone lasts forever," he said. "Like a diamond."

While no industry figures are available, many landscapers and builders like Antos say that stone walls - from retaining walls to decorative border walls - have increased in popularity among local homeowners in recent years.

Traditionally used to mark property lines, especially on old estates, stone walls are used not only to solve drainage problems but also to create an aesthetic all their own.

"Stone is a beautiful product," said Cliff Fetner, president of Jaco Custom Builders in Hauppauge. "There are hundreds of different looks, styles and colors."

Fetner said stone may be used to "accent" the faces and walls of upscale homes and often the same stone is tied into the landscaping.

"Everyone deserves a nice rock wall," said Arnie Pellegrino, who's been building them for 21 years through Long Island Elite of Rocky Point. "To do it right, you have to not be afraid of hard work."

Start with good materials, Pellegrino and others say. He uses more than 20 different kinds of stones. Pennsylvania bluestone is probably the most common type on Long Island, but there are also shades of green and brown flat rocks.

The standard for flat dry walls is overlapping two stones on one stone, then one stone on two stones - like bricklaying - so that gaps and holes don't develop. Small rocks and pieces that are chipped off larger stones are used to fill in spaces so that the rocks don't shift.

"Building a stone wall is like fitting together pieces of a puzzle. You have to look at the rocks to see which pieces fit together," Pellegrino said.

Stone generally costs about $175 per pallet, which holds 3,000 pounds of stones - enough to build between 25 and 30 square feet of wall. Installing a typical wall costs $35 per square foot or $800 per pallet, according to Antos, owner of Setauket Landscape Construction.

Local builders acknowledge that it may seem odd to truck in tons of flat stone from Pennsylvania instead of using round stones, which are prevalent and native to Long Island.

"If you take a walk on most any North Shore beach at low tide, you will find that the shore is covered with round rocks," notes George Wallace, curator of the Northport Historical Society and Suffolk County's current poet laureate. "That's what glaciers do to rocks and that was how Long Island was formed."

In earlier days, round rocks, mortared together, were used for retaining walls, foundations, fences and columns in many North Shore communities. And while some builders continue to incorporate round stones into some of their wall designs, most say they and their clients today prefer the aesthetic of flat stones.

Antos' own yard is probably the best advertising of how versatile stone can be. Not wanting to let anything go to waste, he took large stones from the original foundation of the barn and incorporated them into the retaining wall. He lined up boulders uncovered in the excavation to create a different style of stone wall along the back of the yard, where he dug into the hill. It looks like a giant set of teeth.

Antos also took bricks from that same foundation to build a fireplace in his new house, which closely resembles the home built by Nehemiah Hand in 1855 still standing on the same property, owned by Antos' in-laws.

Antos uses this same technique of terracing and building stone walls to solve drainage problems on other properties as well. There's one across the street, another down the road, one around the bend and more over the hill.

When heavy rains this spring and summer created a particularly challenging situation for Rob and Mary Meyer on their 3-acre property in Setauket, they turned to Antos for help. "He had a vision for the entire backyard," said Meyer, a UPS manager in Manhattan.

The slope of their backyard sent rainwater down to the house, so their yard was always wet. Initially, there were two steps down to the deck from the back door. "When I design a landscape, I work my way up," Antos said. "It is counterproductive, if you're going up, to step down first."

So the first thing he did was to truck in several hundred yards of fill and lay it on a base of broken concrete chunks to raise the level of the yard two feet so that the new stone patio is now two steps up, instead of two steps down. Then he surrounded it with a stone wall.

As with the major shift of the barn on his own property, Antos often thinks in grand terms, moving tons of earth and stone to achieve his desired effect. "It's like buying truckloads of land," he said.

Most masons say they learned how to build stone walls from a master craftsman to whom they were apprenticed. For Dan Messina of Manorville, it worked the other way around: He employed a master stone craftsman at his company, Bridgehampton Stone, "and I learned from him," Messina said.

Messina gets some jobs through his mother, Conni Cross, a garden designer. She designed a lush backyard in Merrick that called for a 7-foot-high stone wall that creates a gentle waterfall into an irregularly shaped Gunite swimming pool. One level down from the pool is a hot tub, surrounded by stonework, and another level down is a stone patio, with all the elements appearing to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Messina's current project in Bridgehampton includes a stone wine cellar, a stone bathroom wall and ceiling, as well as a stone wall surrounding a tennis court.

For another mason, Manley Vito of Huntington Station, the most challenging job has been building a stone wall around a permanent tepee a homeowner had constructed on top of a hill in Centerport. First Vito made a stone path through woods to the big flat area the owner had excavated for the tepee.

Then Vito and his crew of three workers carried 30 tons of stone on their shoulders 150 feet into the woods, 40 feet up the steep hill to build a circular wall 35 feet around and 2 feet high.

"It was very tough to get the material up there," Vito said. There were too many trees and it was too steep to drive anything up there." It took the crew a month to finish the job.

Next, Vito plans to build a seawall in Cold Spring Harbor. The challenge is that he can only work on it at low tide. "There is a limited time span. We can only work five to six hours at a time," Vito said. "Then we have to stop, go back the next day, do five or six more hours, come back the next day."

In building most of his walls, the intent is "to make it look like it's been there its whole life," Vito said. "A stone wall is part of Long Island. It blends into the landscape."

Tamar Asedo Sherman is a freelance writer. She may be reached via e-mail at tamsherm@optonline .net.