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Stone arches totally rock

Art and engineering meet in a little known Benicia building
by Steve McKee on February 27, 2008

Unexpectedly, I recently found myself in a building made almost entirely from stone, created by world-class stone cutters no less. This sort of thing doesn’t happen everyday, not in the U.S. anyway, not in small towns like Benicia, and especially not in secluded little valleys up in the hills of places like Benicia.

Melody and I were taking our son to check out the Camel Barn in order to bask in our Benicia-ness. (The Camel Barn isn’t the cool stone building I speak of, but is near said building.) As all true Benicians know, the Camel Barn is a building in the Arsenal that was used in the 1860’s for the care of camels during a short-lived experiment by the Army concerning the usefulness of these cantankerous ungulates. The Army bailed out pretty quickly on the experiment (turned out the camels were just too damned cantankerous) but the buildings remain and one is now a museum of Benicia history. There are intriguing things in it like maps of Pony Express routes, old photos of downtown, historic flags, and my favorite: a one-twentieth sized wood model of a turn-of-the-century house (modeled after an actual house located on East H Street) with cutaway views revealing its construction.

We had the place to ourselves, so Jim the curator saw to our needs by ushering us around and then suggesting we all take a walk down the hill to a neighboring building called “The Powder Magazine” so we could view the inside of it. Apparently it’s included on the museum tour, if you want.

We approached a one-story rectangle of a building with no windows in it. Through a big heavy door we walked into a long low cave of a building. Wow, aside from wood on the floor, the whole thing was made from stone, including the ceiling. That means real stone arches were at work here. This was indeed excellent stuff, if you’re a geek for that sort of thing like I am. There was a row of stone columns marching along the center of the long room, each with an ornamental flourish carved into the top displaying high quality carving skills. All this in a storage building used simply to hold guns and ammo.

Jim explained that a French stone mason named John Gomo was responsible for creating the building in 1857 and that the ornamental touches were probably added in order to impress others and get him juicier carving and building commissions. The tactic worked, said Jim.

In the last hundred years or so mankind has switched away from using real stone arches for creating substantial buildings, but for the previous four thousand years this was how we inhabitants of Earth created strong long-lasting structures. It’s practically in our DNA. We recreate this shape today even in sheetrock and enjoy the result. In a world of right angles the curve somehow satisfies.

About real arches: It’s quite difficult to fill in the space over our heads using only boulders or bricks, of all things. You try it some time. Here you go fella, see this big pile of rocks? Now make me a room. With a ceiling. No beams allowed. All you get is a hammer and chisel. Not so easy, eh pal?

Faced with that challenge, in no time at all you will become a fan of the arch. A lifelong fan probably. Years from now, when your tour bus arrives at the Colosseum in Rome you will be the first to run within its walls to admire the detail of the arched brickwork. Back on the bus, you’ll be saying things like “Man, did you see the way the soffit bricks met the springline right where they leveled off at the haunches? Row after row! That gave me goose-bumps!”

This is all fine, because being a big fan of the arch is worthy. After all, it is one of the most brilliant inventions/discoveries ever by us humans, on a par with the wheel for sheer niftiness. The heaviest of materials, these chunks of heavy stone that want nothing more than to fall to the ground with a massive thud, can be assembled into a shape that holds themselves up, directly over our heads for crying out loud! It works because the curved shape causes the stones to simply lean against each other. The heaviness of the stone is used as an asset. The arch shape uses gravity to pull the shape into a tight fit. It’s pure brilliance.

Before the stone is placed, a curved wooden form called “falsework” (or a shaped pile of sand) is placed underneath in the shape desired and then each stone is stacked against each other up the curve to meet at the top where a tapered “keystone” is placed and the wood falsework is removed. Voila! The stones keep their curved shape with nothing but air below them. Quite strong, those arches. Just ask the Romans.

A “vault” is created wherever arch shapes intersect. Wonderful curves result. That’s what you find in Benicia’s Powder Magazine building.

My fingers lightly touched the curved leaf design that the Master Gomo had added to the columns of his otherwise utilitarian building. Such a soft shape from such a thing as hard as stone! With no windows and a ceiling only about 9’ high, the Powder Magazine is no gothic cathedral. Rather it’s sort of like a basement you’d expect to find under the gothic cathedral.

You can still see the indentation in the nearby hill where they quarried the stone, now grown over with grasses. I love the fact that these guys weren’t even given the stone, just the use of an ordinary hill. Here you go fellas, take only these tools up into the hills and somehow create a building for the ages, one displaying superb craftsmanship that beautifully blends art and engineering. Hey, thanks.

The result stands in a little valley out in the Benicia hills, ready to last a thousand years. Ask about it during your next Camel Barn visit.

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