National Preservation Conference Sneak Peek: Indiana’s Limestone Industry

Posted on: August 19th, 2013 by Special Contributor

By: Cynthia Brubaker

South and east facades of the Administration Building with the Drafting Building attached to the right.  This photo taken in 2012 shows the replacement windows and infill treatment at the ground floor. | Credit: Photo Courtesy of Cynthia Brubaker

South and east facades of the Administration Building with the Drafting Building attached to the right. This photo taken in 2012 shows the replacement windows and infill treatment at the ground floor. | Credit: Photo Courtesy of Cynthia Brubaker

South-central Indiana is known as the limestone capital of the world for the Salem limestone belt, which yields a stone that is well suited for both building material and sculpture. The mining, milling, and carving of this limestone is an integral part of the history and culture of this area, particularly Lawrence and Monroe counties. Indiana's native stone has been continuously in use as a building material since the late-19th century.

Limestone is sought after for building stone due to its density and lack of discernible grain. It can be milled, cut, carved, and installed in any direction and can withstand the elements, including acid rain, for long periods of time. The material is found on hundreds of famous buildings—the Empire State Building, Biltmore, the Pentagon, the National Cathedral, and more. It is estimated that enough stone remains in the ground to last for another 500 to 900 years, which means that a long-term project, such as the National Cathedral, can have an unlimited supply of stone; and a damaged building, such as the Pentagon, can have a supply of perfectly matched stone for rebuilding and repairs.

Limestone is a green building material. After it is extracted from the ground, it is cut and shaped for a variety of uses and installed. It then cures (dries out) naturally without additional processing. Limestone is also long-lasting and can be reused.

The Bybee Stone Company

These same gang saws have been in place since the mill was constructed in 1908.  | Credit: Photo Courtesy of Cynthia Brubaker

These same gang saws have been in place since the mill was constructed in 1908. | Credit: Photo Courtesy of Cynthia Brubaker

Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to get involved in the restoration of the mill buildings at the Bybee Stone Company in Ellettsville, Ind. The limestone industry in Indiana is often a family-run business, and the Bybee family has managed this mill since the 1970s. It consists of three main interconnected buildings--the administration and drafting buildings and the mill. Secondary buildings include a former company store and a pump house. The yard surrounding these limestone-veneered structures is an ever-changing landscape of stone, which ranges from large rough-cut pieces trucked in from nearby quarries to milled pieces shaped inside the mill and stacked for shipping to locations across the continent. The west side of the property holds the former quarry, which now stands as a walled backdrop to the yard and its activity.

Several years ago, the CFO of the Bybee Stone Company, a friend and former business associate, asked me a question. She said: “Architects come here to specify stone for historic projects elsewhere all the time; we have historic buildings; why can’t we restore our buildings and receive a tax benefit?” As a preservation developer, I was overjoyed to reply simply, “You can!”

Thus began my multi-year quest to document, formulate, and implement a preservation plan for various buildings at the Bybee Mill. These included the administration, drafting, and mill building, the company store, and the grounds. Together they now form the Matthews Stone Company Historic District.

The Restoration

Thanks to the federal historic tax credit, we were able to structure a five-year, phased restoration project that dovetailed well with improvements the Bybees already intended. The 1970s window replacements had failed and needed to be replaced. We found new windows that matched the appearance of the original steel sash. The original faux-slate roof shingles were deteriorated and also needed replacement. Heating and cooling, interior trim, bathroom repairs, and a flat membrane roof replacement were also part of the work plan. Diagonal wood siding and a small entrance way, both added on to the front of the administration building in the 1970s, were removed; the limestone repaired and repointed; and new pieces, milled in the mill building, were installed where existing pieces were cracked or spalled beyond salvaging.

Bybee Mill interior shows planers and carvers at work in the foreground and the overhead crane beam that transports stone throughout the mill. | Credit:  Photo Courtesy of Cynthia Brubaker

Bybee Mill interior shows planers and carvers at work in the foreground and the overhead crane beam that transports stone throughout the mill. | Credit: Photo Courtesy of Cynthia Brubaker

Although physical inspection of the structures was sufficient for determining the preservation treatments, historic photographs provided by the owner made our job easier. The photos confirmed the mullion patterns of the windows, the panels of first-floor wood doors, and locations of first-floor former garage doors. The photos also showed equipment in the mill building that still exists, albeit with new blades, such as the large gang saws that slice large slabs of stone as easily as a loaf of bread.

This stone company rehabilitation project was the most satisfying I have ever worked on. I say this because the end use was the continuing use and was the original use. I say this because the clients trusted me to make the right decisions. And I say this because it truly allows me to own the pride of Indiana’s limestone industry.

Attendees at the National Preservation Conference in Indianapolis will have the opportunity to visit historic limestone mills and quarries, including the Bybee Stone Company, and hear from individuals, who have been in the limestone industry for generations. This field session will take place on Tuesday, October 29.

Cynthia Brubaker is an instructor of Architecture in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at Ball State University

Industrial Heritage, National Preservation Conference