Treasuring the legacy of artisans in Holland and beyond

Some human enterprises seem to flourish over time. Compare today’s automobiles and cruise ships to horses and buggies or schooners a short century back. Contrast the miraculous medical treatments today with bloodletting or leaches of yesteryear. In winter, our foreparents ate parsnips and potatoes from a root cellar, but we take for granted the availability of tomatoes and melons in January.

Some skills of antiquity that once thrived and left enduring legacies around the world also fade as technology turns us in new directions. Think of the masses of artisans who throughout history have quarried, cut, and erected stone, and the monuments that we now travel the world to admire in wonderment.

Pyramids in Egypt, Stonehenge in England, the Temple Mount in Israel, the Acropolis in Greece, the Forum and Colosseum in Rome, Taj Mahal in India, the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Chichen Itza in Mexico, Hagia Sophia in Turkey, and the countless ruins, monuments, palaces, castles, and cathedrals that flesh out our travel itineraries.

The architectural precision of ancient structures, sometimes linked to astronomical observations, amazes us. So also do the engineering skills that quarried, moved, and erected such massive amounts of stone. Until the age of steam, construction power came solely from man and animal. 

Appreciating local monuments

In Holland, we point with pride to the Tower Clock and several downtown buildings, along with Hope’s Graves Hall, built from Waverly Stone quarried from a long-forgotten pit on Waverly Road near the river. Hope’s majestic Dimnent Memorial Chapel is made of limestone quarried and transported from Indiana.

Closely akin to stone construction is the art of masonry. The farmlands around Holland are peppered with brick farmhouses made from red and buff bricks produced by the local Veneklasen Brick Co. between 1850 and 1920. Designs are creative, intricate, and the handiwork of true artisans, not mere bricklayers.

A day away, the village of Calumet in the Upper Peninsula is a treasure trove of beautiful brick and stone buildings. Its population today is less than 800, but at the peak of copper mining, it served as the urban hub for over 30,000 people. Along with the Welsh, Cornish and Finnish miners, immigrants included Italian stonecutters who brought their craft and left their legacy. Calumet alone is worth a trip to the UP. Everything else along the way is a bonus.

As cities grew and buildings reached ever higher, stone construction reached its limits in Chicago’s historic 1891 Monadnock Building. At 16 stories high, the 18-inch-thick blocks on top floors needed 6-foot-thick stone walls on the ground floor to support the building’s massive weight. Just the previous year, the first steel-framed building was also constructed in Chicago. The era of steel, allowing virtually limitless building height, soon overshadowed construction with stone.

In awe of collaborative skills

Symphonies, books, or sculptures are identified by the name of the composer, author, or sculptor. Temples, cathedrals, palaces, or monuments are collaborative efforts by architects, engineers who quarried and transported massive stones, stonecutters, and master builders. We are awestruck not by a solo effort, but by the collaborative skills of hundreds or thousands of artisans that created monumental and enduring works.

Photographic and video imagery of antiquity lets us explore vicariously what we can't see in person. But the ability to travel has also allowed many of us to experience personally some of the wonders of the past 3,000 years carved in stone. In both respects, we are blessed.

Whether looking at a brick farmhouse on the outskirts of Zeeland or St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, we admire the legacy of artisans that designed, cut, and erected stone with such amazing artistry. Modern construction is also amazing in its own respect, but the magnificence and endurance of stone and brick structures are never-ending sources of awe and gratitude.

Dale Wyngarden worked for the city of Holland for three decades, much of that time overseeing the Planning and Development Department during the revitalization of the downtown. Now happily retired, he spends his time writing and gardening.