For more information on “Photo Week,” please see yesterday’s post.

Formstone on a Baltimore Rowhome

AKAPolyester of Brick or . . . Formstone

Location:  Baltimore, MD (Canton, 21224)

In This Photo:

Generically known as “formstone,” this concrete-type material and technique appears primarily in the Eastern part of the US. It was applied widely from the 1930s to the 1960s . In nature, it is a “stamped stucco.” It remains on the street-facing exteriors of many (row)homes in Baltimore, Maryland.  But as many of Baltimore’s urban areas experienced renewal in the late ’90s-early ’00s it became the norm to remove the then outdated finish.  I have heard it said that formstone spread fervently as a band-aid fix for the “cheap brick” used in the construction of many rowhomes.  This is especially true for the city’s more “working class” neighborhoods.


Code Enforcement Office, Southeast District

Additional Information:

We own the property in this photo, and while originally a butcher’s shop — it is now a rental.   Jen bought it before we met, but it was/is still technically our first house. I found this photo conveniently placed on http://baltimorehousing.org (the city’s “one stop shop for housing issues”).  I found myself there *ahem* most mistakenly charged with a trash crime.  Yep! (And you can see a glimpse of the cans in question just down the alley.)

The same week (this Wednesday) we are scheduled in court for this matter. We have coincidentally begun the long-planned project of removing that pictured formstone. (You can see some of its buckling in the upper left hand corner of the photo.) While I’m more fond of the look and significance than others, formstone, though at times elegant, was really a pretty poorly thought out solution.  In most cases, applications did not incorporate a place for water to weep . . . hence sometimes leading to significant damage to the “stone” itself or to a building’s substrate.  The cost of removal (from a typical two-story rowhome and taking appropriate re-finishing measures) varies widely. But in most cases, it runs usually from about $4000 to $6000 — more if there is lead paint present. This one job however that increases in cost when replacing related, architectural elements.

The Story Behind Formstone & John Waters’ Little Castles: A Formstone Phenomenon (<< John Waters is credited with calling formstone — “the Polyester of Brick”.)


Thanks and comments welcome. ~jb

11 thoughts on “Building Moxie Archive: Formstone :: BMoxies 1st Ever Photo Week – Day 2 (the Polyester of Brick)

  1. You just never have an end to the projects, do you? Alas, you’d be bored and destitute if you had nothing to “rework” *smiles knowingly*. I can’t say I’m a big fan of the formstone, but I suppose it is better than the asbestos that lays up against my house. Good luck with the court date and the project. One question….why are you not allowed to have trash cans in the alley? Where are you supposed to put them?

  2. Really interesting to see a trend from a different area. While I’m sure there are such finishes in St. Louis, it’s certainly not the norm. On a project last year, they had a stamped stone pattern on all 4 sides of the 2 story house, but as best as I could tell, it was more of a concrete product over block.

    Good luck with the trash trial. I’ll be pulling for you- “free JB, free JB!…”

  3. I have always wondered about formstone, JB — thanks for the education. What other regional-vernacular building materials and styles are unique to Baltimore?

    I propose that before you complete removing the formstone from your rental property — and assuming you don’t get locked up for your trash crime — you host a party and we all watch John Waters’ Little Castles while drinking Natty Bo, if it’s still available.

    Or, heck, I’ll happily host the party. Think I can download Little Castles from iTunes?

    Best of luck in court.

  4. there is no question that I have softened on formstone over time … it often ends up being a welcome break from brick after brick clad r’home.

    On the trash issue — here’s the deal: the law is pretty simple in the city. metal can with lid and must be brought after trash day. what happens with us and this property — being on an alley, and as with many alleys in BMore — there is houses in the alley. The only logical place for them to place their trash is by the end of our building. These units do not have access to a breezeway thru which they could bring their cans in. And the only reason I know the law is because we have been ticketed. More a nuisance than anything. Tomorrow my day in court. Thanks Amy for the comment. and you know you could submit a photo if you like… we are probably gonna end up doing this next week too. just sayin’.

  5. I have most certainly seen formstone in Philadelphia and I am sure it exists in DC — but nothing like here in Baltimore . . . that article I link to actually has much more information on it.

    While there certainly are block type applications, my feeling is that similar type methods probably still could be found. BUT it would certainly only be something that should be done by highly skilled hands. And despite the tone of my take — there is no question that it has endured in places because it was so well done.

    My hope is to eventually post about my project — and hopefully I can get the time to do it justice.

    As far as my trash trial goes — “I’m innocent I tell you — Innocent!”

  6. oh Leah… always on. I know — I have never seen the movie and really only came across it in researching the pic. A must now . . . As far as your question . . . and I think we’d all agree there is some overlap, some sharing of the vernacular between BMore Philly and DC — federal style, marble stoop, etc . . . and I won’t say that I am so well traveled as to be able to call out some elements (researched required) but in a way — formstone is a sort of poster child for a lot of the “exterior kitsch” you see here in Baltimore. It extends to such things as ceramic climbing cats, painted screens and eagles … lots of eagles if you look — ornamentation added after the fact < and on the short list of *real* articles I may one day write. Anyway -- thanks for the light comment and the well wishes for tomorrow ... again more of a nuisance than anything.

  7. I’m coming to you when I need a phrase, “the polyester of brick” – how perfect. Nobody has titled that better.

    What do you want to call faux stone (concrete) veneers? They don’t hold up and will be in the same category as “the polyester of brick”.

  8. the polyester of brick comes from John Waters. (it was in the footnote) so I can’t take credit… I really haven’t seen any issues with the stone veneers yet. but you would probably know better. but let’s try the “spandex of stone” Idk. Thanks for your comment DC. great weekend!

  9. Watch out for trash crimes. I’ve heard tell that some have resulted in folks having to sit on the Group W bench for a while … *snicker* :-)

    And thanks for the intro (for me, anyway) to formstone. Always interested in learning more about the vernacular architectures and practices of other regions. Hope you do indeed get a chance to write more about these topics in some forthcoming articles.

  10. on a whim, I was out taking pics of rooftop decks which vernacular or not have become fairly common with rowhomes near our inner harbor — maybe friday. i have since pealed back my feeling on formstone after I posted this — there are in fact many elegant examples of it around. for us — we are on day 6 of our return to brick project and it is looking really good. hope to post more on that soon. thanks for the comment John.

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