Baltimore sculptor aims to rescue marble steps
Sebastian Martorana, who tried to rescue city's iconic marble steps, chosen for Washington exhibit
"Yours, Mine & Ours," a sculptural piece by Sebastian Martorana. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / June 28, 2012)
The sculptor, a transplant to the city who recognized immediately the cultural meaning of rowhouse marble steps, tells the story of trying to rescue many of those steps from demolition.
"These steps are a savable part of Baltimore history," said Martorana, whose work has been chosen for display in the prestigious "40 under 40: Craft Futures" at the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington that opened Friday.
"Did you ever see a woman scrubbing concrete steps?" asks the 31-year-old sculptor. "Did you ever see anyone care as much for their marble steps as Baltimore cares for its?"
His reverence for Baltimore's tradition of marble front steps can be seen in the work chosen for the exhibition — the piece is carved from a marble landing he rescued from a pile of building debris in Druid Hill Park.
In some area of the city, steps are disappearing, block by block, as redevelopment projects move forward and builders replace the marble with concrete, Martorana said. Martorana has been trying to rescue them but for the most part has encountered frustration. He has petitioned developers, looped in city housing officials and gone to community meetings. Put the steps back on the new buildings, he said. Or leave them, and I will take them.
"I emailed. I wrote letters. I went to community meetings. I did all the things a concerned citizen should do," said the defiant sculptor.
One of the demolition contractors promised in an email to Martorana this spring that the steps were being saved from a project in Barclay. But he doesn't know where they are. He has seen broken remains at redevelopment sites but says he was warned by officials at another contracting company that if he tried to salvage them, he would be prosecuted for theft.
"Each stair weighs about 800 pounds. I don't want to put my friends at risk, but there are only so many steps a guy like me can steal," he said, admitting to making a couple of nighttime runs with his pickup truck.
Reached Friday, a project manager from one of the contracting firms he corresponded with, Telesis, sounded an optimistic note about saving the marble. (See sidebar, "Another step.") Attempts to reach officials from P&J Contracting, another demolition firm he attempted to negotiate with, were unsuccessful.
The city's polished marble steps, as much a part of Baltimore as crabs and Natty Boh, are being replaced in some quarters with cinder blocks and concrete. The sculptor points to examples outside the South Baltimore stonecutter shop where he works.
Baltimore's steps generally came from quarries in Baltimore County. Most of the marble for the Washington Monument in D.C. came from those quarries, too.
Marble was actually cheaper than concrete 100 years ago, Martorana said, so it made sense to use it.
"It is inherently better sitting on marble than it is on concrete. It gives back the heat of the sun," said Martorana, who has a set of these steps outside his rowhouse in Station North, off North Avenue. He sits there on plenty of evenings, watching the children play and talking to neighbors. He plans to watch his own child, due later this summer, from those steps.
"I understand it is cheaper to rebuild [houses] than to renovate," he said. "But [saving the steps and putting them back on the houses] would be a way to keep the character of the neighborhood, a way to preserve a portion of it. I just kept saying, 'You can do this! We can do this!' It is just sad that it isn't being done."
It is an irony that part of what Martorana is asked to do for Hilgartner Natural Stone Co. is to restore marble steps. Though most of his time is spent restoring statuary and cornices for churches, cemeteries or old buildings, Martorana has used some of the rescued marble steps to pay tribute to his adopted city.
"White Plastic Bag Memorial," a piece commissioned for Artscape in 2008 and executed in marble from a Baltimore step, looks for all the world like a plastic bag, caught on a rusting piece of rebar and blowing in the wind. He calls it "Baltimore's flag," and it is carved from a marble step, and is so realistic that you swear you could snatch it off (and recycle it) without a second thought.
For the Renwick show, curator Nicholas Bell chose a deeply personal piece by Martorana. He carved the marble landing he found in Druid Hill Park to resemble a bed pillow, with the impression of a sleeping head still visible. Called "Impressions," it is a tribute to his father-in-law, whom he helped to care for in his last days.
"It's critical when looking at craft not only to consider those quietly working in their studios, but also the craftsman on the street whose hands shape our everyday world," said Bell. "The fact that he goes home at night to turn abandoned rowhouse stoops into these striking sculptures is a bonus — another remarkable layer in this young man's work and a boon for Baltimore."