The Story of the Lonely Chimney

You know we love old stone fireplaces and chimneys. So we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share a story about a little lonely chimney that’s lost its home. This information comes to us from architect Leonard J. Baum.

How did this stone chimney become an orphan, you ask? It was originally attached to a 3/4 timber-framed cape, circa 1720-1740, located in Rhode Island. The home rotted and collapsed in on itself, leaving the stone chimney to stand by its lonesome for several winters until, last year, when frost heaves made it necessary to carefully disassemble the structure and store it away for safe keeping.

According to Baum, the chimney cap was fashioned of hammered smooth stones, packed in red clay. Walls were constructed of dressed stone, laid up in very soft lime putty; infill between walls and flues appeared to be a mixture of stone chards and red clay. The bake oven was topped with a turtle-shaped stone and featured a wrought-iron lintel. The kitchen fire box featured a chestnut lintel.

The chimney is almost completely dismanteled and sitting on pallets, with the fireboxes mapped and marked. Baum seeks a new owner who will incorporate this structure into a new or vintage design and also more information on this early American form of masonry. For more information, visit

Artistry of the Early American Stonemason

Stonemasons, Fort Worth, Texas

Stonemasons, circa 1906, Fort Worth, Texas. Source:

The earliest American homes were built with stones gathered from open fields or unearthed while a farmer tilled his land. These stones were not shaped with tools, but cobbled together as-is, with mortar used to seal — and compensate for inconsistencies in stone shapes and sizes. The most smoothly faced stones were reserved for the exterior, front-facing sides of stone walls.

Once we had our footing in this new world, we refined the building process and quarried stones for home construction. Enter the stone mason. Once stone blocks were rough cut from the face of a rock quarry, the mason “dressed” or “faced” the stones to suit construction needs.

Old Stone Wall Types

Wall types, clockwise from top left: Fieldstone, rubble and coursed rubble. Source:

To rough-face a stone, the mason first used a mashing hammer to trim away any projections that would prevent the stone from being laid in a straight line. Next, following straight lines he marked with a square, the mason would fine tune his work by trimming away additional stone with a pitching tool and mallet. To smooth-face a stone, a pick was used in place of a pitching tool.

Once all that pounding, trimming and chiseling was done, wall height and width were staked out with string, mortar (a “mud” made by mixing together lime, sand, hair and water) was prepared, trenches were dug and stones set in place, using smaller stones (i.e. gallets) to fill voids between stones and mortar to set the work in place. One part skilled craftsman and one part artisan, the stonemason could envision a design, face stones and then set them in a tightly woven, incredibly intricate pattern that required little mortar to stay put.

Old Stone Mill Rubble Style Stonework

Example of random-coursed rubble walls: James Mendenhall Mill, New Castle County, Delaware, circa 1826. Source:

Rubble is probably the best example of early quarried and rough-faced stone. Rubbled stones retained their irregular shape and size, but required less mortar as they were precisely pieced together. Examples include random-coursed rubble, similar in appearance to a jigsaw puzzle, and regular-coursed rubble, which created continuous horizontal joints.

As masonry improved, rubble was replaced by tooled blocks that were used to build even-coursed walls. The stonemason would “sign” his artwork by chiseling his maker’s mark into an individual stone, cornerstone or lintel – a lasting reminder of his skill and craftsmanship.

Mason's Mark Cornerstone Old Stone Homes

Mason’s mark on quoin or cornerstone. Source: David Sankey.

Masons and Bricklayers
Historic Stonework by William Kibbel III, The Home Inspector
Early American Architecture: From the First Colonial Settlements to the National Period by Hugh Morrison

The Story of Stone and Early American Home Styles

An old stone home is a reflection of its builder’s heritage and masonry skills as well as the region in which it was built. Let’s explore materials and home style as we tour the earliest stone homes to appear along or near the East Coast of North America.

Region: New England

In the mid-1600s, the population of New England was primarily English, so home styles were pretty simple, stripped of ornamentation and timber-framed (timber being the most readily available material). Design had purpose: A pitched roof shed heavy snow loads and a central fireplace kept the home warm and cozy during cold New England winters. But not many stone homes. Why? Although fieldstone was plentiful (we know this by virtue of old dry-stacked stone walls that still exist throughout the region), the ingredients to make a good mortar were scarce. Rare examples appear where limestone was plentiful (primarily Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts) and took the form of what came to be coined “stone-siders”.

Photo: Clemence-Irons House by acanyc, Johnston, RI, limestone construction, Post-Medieval English style

Photo: Clemence-Irons House by acanyc, Johnston, RI, limestone construction, Post-Medieval English style

Region: Central Hudson Valley and New Jersey

Moving on to the Hudson Valley, we see a slight change in style and construction. Dutch and Flemish settlers were more skilled in pairing materials, specifically fieldstone with brick, timber or both. To construct the earliest stone homes, settlers rough-cut stone and sandwiched it between layers of hair- or straw-bound clay to build walls that measured up to three feet thick. Lime mortar, fashioned from oyster shells or lime deposits, and finely masoned stones and intricately laid brickwork eventually replaced more primitive building materials.

Mount Gulian stone home

Photo: Mount Gulian by Howard Dale, Beacon, NY, red and brown sandstone construction, Dutch colonial style

Region: Delaware River Valley

Further south in the Delaware Valley of Pennsylvania, Swedish, Scots-Irish and German settlers initially built log structures. It was the German immigrants who truly put their stamp on the stone home design. The earliest structures featured steep roofs, central fireplaces and small square windows flush set against thick stone walls. Often, homes were built over springs that provided running water or into hillsides (hence the term “bank house”) that kept interiors cool during hot and humid summer months.

Hans Herr House old stone home in Lancaster County

Photo: Hans Herr House by Historyplaces, Willow Street, PA, sandstone construction, German colonial style

Early American Architecture by Hugh Morrison
The History, Science and Poetry of New England’s Stone Walls
Hudson Valley Architecture
Stone Houses of Eastern Pennsylvania
Architecture, Furniture, and Silver from Colonial Dutch America
Common Building Types: Houses, Agricultural Outbuildings, Mills