Constructing 290 Oak Hill Road by Allan Shope: Journal Entry 6: Granite Monoliths
The pyramids of Egypt make as powerful an impression today as when they were built over four thousand years ago. Their designs and scale strike a primordial chord, but it is also the materials – the monoliths from which the ancient structures were constructed – that inspire awe. The viewer can’t help but marvel at the forces that could have moved such massive boulders, at the unimaginably vast amount of time the stones have existed on our planet, and at the equally inconceivable eons they will likely persist, long after any living being has perished. When people build with large stones – whether creating pyramids, houses, landscapes, obelisks, or gravestones – the virtually timeless and immovable nature of the material enables them to leave a compelling, lasting mark, and to mitigate their mortality.
For the Oak Hill Road project, I was fortunate to come across a bountiful supply of granite monoliths just a few miles away from our farm in Amenia, New York. An enormous granite ledge two-thirds of the way up a mountain on Bog Hollow Road had faults running through it. During the winter, water that ran through the faults froze near the surface of the cliff, expanded, and broke off enormous pieces of granite, which fell to the bottom of the cliff in a giant pile. Over the course of tens of thousands of years, the wind, rain, sun, frost, animals, and plant life buffeted those rocks, gradually forging worn edges and surfaces on which myriad mosses and lichens sprouted. The result: hundreds of granite behemoths, each one a unique, magnificent sculpture crafted by nature.
I had two purposes in mind for the stones: eight were chosen to stand vertically in pairs as pillars to define portals, and 56 were selected to create a series of terraces stepping up the hill alongside the house. It took many days of clambering around the mountain to determine which stones’ scale, colors, textures, proportions, and form would best meet my needs. After making the selection, moving them proved particularly challenging because I wanted to keep each one perfectly intact, to preserve all the manifestations of their individual histories, and to minimize any signs of human manipulation. Transporting objects that weigh up to fifty tons without damaging delicate ecosystems that have developed along the exterior surfaces demands more TLC than most earth-moving machines and their operators tend to favor, but we managed to accomplish it.
The granite monoliths are all gathered now in Livingston, awaiting their final placement. The terracing stones will be set carefully in relation to one another, with close attention paid to the shape of the space between the stones to allow tiny new ecosystems of mosses, lichens, and other small life forms to thrive there. The terraces will make up an edible landscape, planted with vegetables and fruits. Although the plant life is fleeting, the stones testify to the permanence of the gardens, and to my belief that growing food should always be part of living.
There is a certain amount of hubris involved in uprooting granite monoliths from the locations where nature has deposited them. It took millions of years to create these exquisite objects, and I have intervened to make my own mark with them. I have endeavored to treat them with respect, to ensure that my meddling only enhanced nature’s artistry. Time will tell. Time will also change. The stones will outlive the house, despite my best efforts to create a long-lasting structure, and Livingston may not end up being their final resting place. Ramesses II never could have envisioned that a pink granite obelisk he erected before the Luxor Temple three thousand years ago would be shipped off to Paris in the nineteenth century, installed at the center of the Place de la Concorde, and dubbed Cleopatra’s Needle. If the greatest pharaoh of Ancient Egypt’s Golden Age couldn’t keep his big stone in place, I certainly can’t hope to, but I am happy to be able to share this moment in history with the granite monoliths on Oak Hill Road.
In my next journal entry, I will discuss architecture as a non-visual experience.
Until next week,