You know what’s more intrinsic to Kansas City than jazz and barbecue?
It’s everywhere. In retaining walls, landscapes, patios, on the inside and outside walls of elegant houses and famous buildings, surrounding swimming pools and fronting fireplaces. It also sprinkled over the ground as gravel, sculpted into fountains and chiseled into garden benches and statues.
Cydney Millstein, of Architectural & Historical Research in Kansas City, points out that she’s researched a number of historic homes where limestone was quarried right on the site where the homes were built.
“If you go into the Kansas prairie instead of wood fence posts, they are stone fence posts,” adds T.J. Jackson, director of sales at Sturgis Rock Solid Solutions in Kansas City, Kan. “Stone was easier to find than trees.”
The Kansas City area and swaths of Kansas sit on a large bed of limestone. It was formed more than 300 million years ago as marine fossils decomposed at the bottom of a shallow body of water that covered most of the Midwest.
“We had a large number of limestone yards in the area by 1886,” Millstein says. “They equaled the number of brickyards in the city.”
SubTropolis, a 6 million-square-foot underground business center where limestone was once quarried, is a reminder of that era. So are the Bernard Corrigan home at 55th Street and Ward Parkway and the Flavel-Tiffany castle in the Historic Northeast neighborhood, Millstein says. The homes serve as prime examples of the types of elegant homes built with stone from those yards during the last century.
So it’s not surprising that today, the ancient rock is still finding new lives in Kansas City homes.
Thin & thick veneers
Stone processing technology has changed in recent years to allow for more uses. Several local retailers have workshops that can slice, saw, chisel and polish limestone into any number of custom shapes and sizes.
Eric Polamares and his father, Fidel Polamares, were recently pushing chunks of limestone through a loud stone splitter at House of Rocks in Kansas City, Kan. The chunks came out as pieces of full-depth veneer that are 3 inches to 5 inches thick.
Another machine nearby with a giant round diamond blade slices those full-depth veneers into thin-depth veneers that range from 1 ¼-inch to 1 ½-inch thick. Both must be applied by skilled masons.
According to sales operation manager Adam Burkiewicz, full-depth stone is a great insulator, increases the structural integrity of homes and buildings and boosts resale value of the home. It also costs about 20 percent less than thin-depth veneers because it requires less processing and produces less waste.
And yet the thin veneer is getting more and more popular. Burkiewicz estimates that 70 percent of the limestone they sell is thin veneer. Just five years ago, it accounted for about 30 percent of sales.
Thin-depth veneers don’t cost as much to transport, and you can pour a thinner foundation to support it, Burkiewicz says, so that closes the gap in pricing to some extent.
“And,” he adds, “you really can’t tell the difference between full-depth and thin-cut veneer once it’s installed.”
Today, Kansas City also outsources limestone. It comes here from all over the United States and in colors ranging from several shades of white to reddish brown, with blues, yellows and oranges in between.
B.L. Rieke Homes, a custom builder in Lenexa, recently designed and built a “contemporary eclectic” home in Leawood with bluish white Indiana limestone veneer from Sturgis in nearly every room and all over the exterior, including on columns, around the backyard pool and as the walls of a firepit.
“Forever we were using rock from Oklahoma and Arkansas that have a lot of the golds and oranges and darker colors,” says owner Bruce Rieke. “But with these newer, more contemporary designs, they like this gray stone.”
According to Matt Lonesk, vice president of sales at Sturgis, Indiana limestone is known for being fine-grained and consistent because it’s quarried from deeper in the ground.
“So it’s had more time for everything to line up,” he says. “Masons find it superior to work with.”
It also withstands freeze-thaw cycles better than other varieties of limestone, he adds.
“A lot of times, softer limestones have grains that hold water in place and with expansion and contraction can, in some instances, cause the limestone to crack or break,” Lonesk said. “That’s when we come in with clients, to suggest which kind to use where and if you need a sealer and what kind. People think, ‘Oh it’s rocks, it’s hard. Just throw rock down.’ But there is a lot more to it than that.”
He and Jackson were sitting in the Sturgis showroom surrounded by several hand-chiseled limestone mantels, examples of what their artisans can create in their workshop. Just outside the doors is what they call the “bone yard,” an area where large limestone pieces of old buildings lie. They’ve all been replaced with replicas created at Sturgis.
“Most contractors coming in are working on custom homes with architects involved or they’re restoring old homes,” Jackson says, adding that there are no blueprints to replicate stones, so the fabricators work with contractors, architects and the reclaimed pieces.
“We try to figure out what this piece originally looked like and how do you put it in a wall so it doesn’t look new?” Lonesk says. “It takes chiseling and antiquing to get it to look like what the original builders wanted it to look like.”
Sturgis has also started making more and more limestone countertops, though it’s not quite a trend yet. It costs more than granite because the edges have to be hand-chiseled and the stone must be sealed regularly to prevent staining.
“The nice thing about limestone is if you power wash it, it will clean right up,” Lonesk said, pointing to the red brick exterior of the Sturgis building. The window sills and door surrounds on the 65-year-old building are Indiana limestone, something they didn’t realize until they turned a high-pressure hose onto them. “We used to take clients downtown to see examples of how limestone ages; now we can walk them out the front doors.”
New limestone uses
▪ Thin pieces of blue limestone can be used to bake pizzas, because they withstand high heat.
▪ Stack long and short chunks to create a garden bench. House of Rocks sells a kit for $75 that creates a rustic bench, while Sturgis sells a more polished looking garden bench in Desert Cream for $600.
▪ The veneers can be used to add interest to plain walls, backsplashes and fireplace fronts.
▪ Limestone can be chiseled into countertops. They aren’t cheap and do stain so they need to be sealed frequently, though some chefs like the patina that comes with age, so they leave them raw.