Formstone.  Its the fake rock veneer we love to hate.  The stuff that makes large parts of our city look like Fred and Barney’s Bedrock.  In a self-professed red-brick town like Lancaster, Formstone is not something to be discussed in polite company.  Like a rash we picked up in Baltimore, or the tub of expired sour cream we just found in the back of the fridge, this infamous cement skin is an embarrassing pox on our houses.  And churches and stores and garages.  While Baltimore might be the epicenter of the outbreak (John Waters famously called the stuff “The polyester of brick”), we have no shortage of the stuff.  We try to ignore it, but there is hardly a block in the city that is Formstone-free, and in some neighborhoods it covers a good quarter of the building stock.  Its ubiquity renders it almost invisible, the architectural equivalent of white noise or the gray static of television’s old dead air.


Formstone coverage in part of Cabbage Hill, Lancaster.

As architectural travesties go, however, Formstone has an certain charm.  If you stop and really look at the stuff, there is a surprising diversity of forms.  Some is monochrome, some has four, five, or even six different colors.  There are pinks and blues and purples and tans mixed in with the standard grays.  Some have recessed mortar lines, some have raised beads.  It is a widely-held misconception that the stuff was rolled on or hung in sheets like other veneers– in fact, most Formstone was shaped by hand, on site, with a series of special tools in an extremely labor-intensive process, making it a true (if inexplicable) form of folk art.  The original 1937 patent describes how each “stone” was formed with its own batch of colored concrete, textured with special rollers, and powdered with mica or other surface additions.  Mortar lines were drawn and shaped freehand.  Every mason had his own style, his own abstract interpretation of a stone wall.  Few were convincing, of course, but that wasn’t really the point.  For most of the twentieth century, a red brick house was boring and ugly and needed to be painted all the damn time.  A Formstone house, on the other hand, had a touch of class to it.  In the words of one Baltimorean interviewed in a great documentary of the same name, they were “Little Castles.”