Dry Stone Wall Restoration at Stan Hywet Hall, Ohio

Stone has been used throughout the world as a construction material in cultural landscapes, dating to prehistoric times. Examples of ancient dry stone construction traditions and craftsmanship include terraces in China and Peru, walls and shelters throughout the United Kingdom, and vast numbers of walls and fences here in the United States. The term dry stone refers to the technique of assembling stone structures without the use of mortar and relying on the forces of gravity and frictional resistance to create long-term durability. Although dry stone walls and buildings are perhaps the most common types of this ancient craft, other examples include mills, dams, canals, kilns, bridge abutments, railway piers and embankments.
In the United States, dry stone construction dates to the colonial period and was a common feature of agricultural, industrial and residential landscapes. Over time, these stone walls and structures, especially ubiquitous throughout New England and the Kentucky Bluegrass Region, started to disappear. Those that remained deteriorated through a combination of neglect, lack of maintenance, or outright destruction. Development, road widening projects, abandonment of farms fields, theft, and disassembling of the walls for various purposes all have led to a startling loss of stone walls and fences throughout the nation.

The Dry Stone Conservancy (DSC), based in Lexington, Kentucky, formed in 1996, preserves dry stone structures and promotes this venerable craft. A serious shortage of skilled dry stone masons, compounded by a scarcity of technical information, construction specifications, and engineering data led to the incorporation of the DSC as the national training center for training and expertise. The DSC provides six program areas that are not mutually exclusive: training and certification of dry stone masons; restoration and construction/training projects; local, state, and federal government and non-government agency collaboration; public education; research, publication, collections, and archives; and development (fundraising, financing, and grants). Of these six areas, the first two are specifically related to on-site construction and restoration of dry stone walls. DSC-led construction projects have occurred throughout the United States.
B&W photo of construction workers building a wall.
Original wall construction at Stan Hywet Hall, 1920s.

Photo courtesy of Stan Hywet Hall archives.

In 2007, the DSC supervised the restoration of a dry stone retaining wall along the "Pleasure Drive" extension at Stan Hywet Hall National Historic Landmark, in Akron, Ohio. F.A. Seiberling, founder of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, built this country estate between 1912-1915 and named it "Stan Hywet" (which is old English for stone quarry.) Seiberling hired architect Charles S. Schneider to design the manor house, using large country estates in England as inspiration. Hired to work with Schneider was Warren H. Manning, renowned Boston landscape architect. Manning began his illustrious career working for Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s premier landscape architect during the latter 19th century. Manning soon established his own office and became known for his expertise in horticulture, resource-based planning, designs employing native plant material, and the interplay of naturalistic and formal traditions.
Deteriorating rock wall.
Original wall in deteriorated condition, April 2007.

Photo courtesy of Dry Stone Conservancy.

At Stan Hywet, Manning recognized and made use of the existing unique characteristics of the site in his design, which ultimately included open meadows, a lagoon, planned vistas, a birch allee, and formal gardens. The design for the Stan Hywet landscape was a collaborative, artful blending of architecture and nature, formal and informal. On Manning’s recommendation, Seiberling hired Ellen Biddle Shipman, known as "the dean of women landscape architects," to design the Walled English Garden. To construct the manor house, extensive wall system, and the "Pleasure Drive" network throughout the estate, stone cut from an on-site quarry in addition to imported stone was utilized. Manning designed a service drive extension to the rear of the house that was cut into a hillside and stabilized with a dry stone retaining wall. Over time, large trees that had been incorporated into the fabric of the wall died and collapsed, leading to severe deterioration and loss of structural integrity.
Wall made out of rocks.
Retaining wall after restoration, July/August, 2007.

Photo courtesy of Dry Stone Conservancy.

A team of DSC dry stone craftsmen, led by Master Stonemason and project supervisor Neil Rippingale, successfully restored a 300-foot section of this wall in July/August of 2007. Fortunately, the team salvaged approximately two thirds of the historic rock from the downhill slope, where it had gradually slid over time. In addition, the team made use of broken and fragmented stone as packing in the core of the wall. Additional stone was cut and brought in from an off-site location. For the critical top structural layer of the wall (cover course), DSC used all new cut stone. Castellation or parapet stone—which is stone placed in a vertical position along the wall at the edge of the road—was restored as well. This particular dry stone feature is frequently found in Olmsted/Manning designs.
Following the completion of the wall restoration, workers cleared much of the accumulated brush, windfall, and expired vegetation along the lower slope, exposing much of the glacial-deposited stone slabs that Manning incorporated into his design for the wild garden setting. The contrast of the natural exposed stone and naturalistic plantings with the constructed dry stone feature is striking. This project, in concert with several others, has allowed Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens to reopen almost eight acres that had previously been inaccessible for public interpretation and enjoyment.

Many thanks to Mark Gilles, architect at Stan Hywet Hall, for contributing information about the restoration project.

For additional information regarding Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, visit:
http://www.stanhywet.org/.
For additional information about the Dry Stone Conservancy, visit:
http://www.drystone.org/.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 3, 2008, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Geoffrey Burt.

Last updated: June 28, 2018