An­swer Man Fa­vors Ac­ces­soriz­ing the Streets

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro Week -

D riv­ing into the Dis­trict, we noted a curious phe­nom­e­non. Road re­pair­men were pour­ing con­crete as they fixed side­walks and curbs in Chevy Chase. As we crossed the border into the Dis­trict of Columbia, a crew was also re­plac­ing some lengths of curb­ing, but with a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence. In­stead of mun­dane con­crete, they were in­stalling gran­ite seg­ments, cut to size! We re­al­ized that all the curbs through­out D.C. are gran­ite. As we had re­cently up­graded our own kitchen sur­faces with gran­ite, at a cost of sev­eral thou­sand dol­lars, we won­dered how the use of such an ex­pen­sive ma­te­rial can be jus­ti­fied by the city.

When you want to make an im­pres­sion, use stone. Would the Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment be quite as im­pres­sive if it were made of con­crete? Would the East Build­ing of the Na­tional Gallery of Art look as cool as it does if it were built out of wood? Wash­ing­ton is set in stone, and the curbs are no dif­fer­ent. In truth, not all the Dis­trict’s curbs are made of gran­ite. It’s pri­mar­ily those curbs on fed­er­ally aided streets or in his­toric ar­eas, as stip­u­lated in 1983 by Sec­tion 24, Chap­ter 11, of the D.C. Mu­nic­i­pal Reg­u­la­tions. (Some curbs — in Ge­orge­town, Capi­tol Hill, Eck­ing­ton — are blue­stone.)

As you no doubt learned in school, gran­ite is an ig­neous rock formed by the slow cool­ing and crys­tal­liza­tion of vol­canic magma. (Or, as Dr. Evil would say, “magma.”) Yes, it’s more ex­pen­sive than con­crete — about $45 per lin­ear foot vs. $25 — but it’s more durable, said Ab­dul­lahi Mohamed, a su­per­vi­sory civil en­gi­neer with the D.C. De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion.

Gran­ite — solid, heavy — re­sists road salt and er­rant snow­plow blades. When there’s road­work to be done, gran­ite curbs can be lifted up, set aside, then put back in place.

The Dis­trict or­ders its curbs from the North Carolina Gran­ite Corp., which has the world’s largest open-face quarry in Mount Airy, N.C. The gran­ite — white with flecks of black, giv­ing it a gray ap­pear­ance — is called Mount Airy white. It’s not as ex­pen­sive as the gran­ite used in homes be­cause it isn’t pol­ished to a glossy fin­ish.

Last week, An­swer Man watched as a crew from Capi­tol Paving of D.C. in­stalled new curb­ing on Florida Av­enue NW. A web­bing belt was wrapped around the cen­ter of a 9-foot-10-inch-long piece of gran­ite. The sling was at­tached to the scoop of a Bob­cat, which lifted the stone and then low­ered it slowly into place. Masons used a string line to make sure the curb was level and then in­serted a thin cork joint be­tween the curbs.

As with an ice­berg, much of a curb can’t be seen. It’s 12 inches deep, but only seven inches show above­ground. The work­ers filled around the curb with dry-mix con­crete, then sprin­kled it all with wa­ter so the curb would set. When they were done, they washed the curb. It gleamed, with an edge you could slice a tomato on.

“It’s more beau­ti­ful than con­crete,” Ab­dul­lahi said of the gran­ite.

And why shouldn’t Wash­ing­ton have at­trac­tive curbs? An­swer Man thinks that wher­ever pos­si­ble we should strive for beauty, even in the lowly and the mun­dane. Af­ter all, Wash­ing­ton is a city of straight lines, from the grid that Pierre L’En­fant drew when he laid out the city to the knife’s edge walls of the Na­tional Gallery of Art East Build­ing. Gran­ite curbs help to crisply de­lin­eate the land­scape, sep­a­rat­ing street from side­walk and re­mind­ing us that it’s nice to live in a beau­ti­ful city.

— Tom and Mar­i­lyn Marcy, Cen­tre­ville


Florida Av­enue NW gets new gran­ite curbs, stur­dier (and spiffier) than con­crete.

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