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While exploring the Upper West Side, alert observers and architecture fans alike may well notice how often the neighborhood’s famous brownstones are punctuated by bases of pale, smooth limestone. Occasionally entire buildings, particularly in the neo-Georgian and Beaux Arts styles, shine alongside their darker, more rough-hewn neighbors. Builders and architects working in the Beaux Arts style in particular favored limestone not only for its beauty but because it is easily cut, quite durable, and ideally suited for the decorative motifs that characterized the era. Relatively rare limestone residences are among the most sought-after luxury apartments for sale on the Upper West Side.
Limestone composes only about 10% of all sedimentary rock. Yet its workability means that it has been used architecturally for most of human history. The Great Pyramids are made of limestone, as are the temples of Malta built between 3600 BC and 700 BC, which may be the oldest free-standing structures on earth. The stone itself, of course, is far older, being primarily made of calcium from ancient sea organisms such as shells, coral, skeletons, and fossilized soft tissues. Ancient caves and grottoes are often made of limestone formed over millions of years by water shaping it, as builders and stonecutters do, into intricate and enduring curves, hollows, and prominences. Vacationing in Italy in 1948, W. H. Auden saw the aged limestone structures of the Mediterranean as metaphors for immortal beauty. His great poem “In Praise of Limestone” concludes:
…when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.
Limestone’s sense of elemental substance makes it a heavy, solid, and noble stone often used for great, monumental works. Portland stone, which dates back to the Jurassic era, is perhaps the most famous limestone for building. Quarried on the English Isle of Portland off the coast of Dorset, Portland stone is the material from which St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace, and the U.N. Headquarters were built.
Discovered much later, though in fact far older, Indiana limestone was formed during the Paleozoic era, when most of the United States was under a tropical sea and still south of the equator. Like its more famous cousin, it is of the highest quality, being remarkably pure (which means it can be cut into very large blocks) as well as more durable than most other types of limestone. Indiana limestone was a popular building material during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the height of the Beaux Arts movement, and has been used in the Empire State Building, the Pentagon, Yankee Stadium, and 35 of the 50 U.S. state capitol buildings.
It is easy to see, then, why discerning buyers of the apartments for sale on the Upper West Side often find limestone buildings like The Chatsworth particularly attractive. As a popular building material for the Gilded Age that is strongly associated with architecture of particular importance, limestone evokes a sense of stately luxury. No wonder its long, storied history, classical and neoclassical connotations, and grand associations stand out, even in one of the most beautiful historic areas of New York.
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