A brief look at one of the defining and unique features of the architectural history of Lynchburg.
In June of 1969, the Virginia Greenstone Corporation shuttered its doors and thus ended the quarrying and use of this unique and beautiful building material. Although forms of greenstone are found in other locations, none with characteristics and color of that found in Lynchburg, Virginia and used all over the country, indeed as far afield as Canada and Germany.
Greenstone is versatile as well as beautiful. It has excellent anti-slip properties, an unusually low moisture absorption rate, is very strong and hard, and is remarkably resistance to acids and alkalis. Although most commonly associated with exterior construction, greenstone also had many interior uses. Flooring comes to mind, but that was not the sole use. The windowsills at Holy Cross Catholic Church are greenstone, as is a fireplace surround in the White House.
As early as the 1790s greenstone was used for gravestones in Lynchburg, but the first known structure is the Quaker Meeting House, built in 1792. Given the quarrying methods of the time, the stone used in the church was called “topstone” and was much rougher than that quarried in later years. Indeed during the heyday of greenstone’s use, “topstone” would not have even been marketable.
The Virginia Greenstone Corporation was formed in 1931 and the first massive blocks were quarried in 1932 for the construction of the Allied Arts Building. In the 1950s all the Virginia ABC stores had greenstone facings. During the following decades the stone would be shipped to all fifty states, as well as across the oceans. One shipment to Hawaii coincided with the attack on Pearl Harbor, but did arrive safely to grace the façade of a bank. Greenstone was used at Father Flanagan’s Boys Town and on the Bank of Toronto in Canada.
However, nowhere was the use of greenstone as ubiquitous as in Lynchburg, Virginia. Indeed, it may well be that the most prolific use of native greenstone in architecture, anywhere, is in the Fort Hill area. From the Quaker Meeting house to the Allied Arts Building to Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, the list goes on and on. May we humbly suggest that a leisurely walk in the older neighborhoods and downtown areas of our fair city makes for a wonderful visual history lesson.
Taxes on every cubic foot of greenstone extracted, fear of damage to the Fort Hill neighborhood where the quarry was located, and the apparent depletion of the supply, all combined to result in the closing of the Virginia Greenstone Corporation in 1969. There is some speculation that since the greenstone vein is vertical, there may in fact be plenty left that could be extracted by modern day methods. But that is a conversation for another time… In the meantime, greenstone remains one of the unique and historically fascinating features of Lynchburg and Central Virginia.
This article is largely an adaption from research done by Daisy Warnalis a number of years ago when she moved to Central Virginia. The LHF is so appreciative of her generosity in allowing us to use it.