New Life for Old Stones

New England’s iconic stone walls are among the region’s most distinctive features. To homeowners creating their own landscapes, a stone wall is more than a property border or retaining structure: it evokes another era, when craftsmen carefully constructed homes and barns by hand.Interior designer Lee Perrault of Rye sought the same type of craftsmanship when she and her husband, Don, built their home. An advocate of repurposing furniture and using recycled materials “years before it was fashionable,” Perrault says she applied the same mentality to finishing her newly built home. Looking for old stone to build a retaining wall on her property, she knew she’d stumbled on something special when she discovered a neglected stone foundation in Canterbury, about a mile from Canterbury Shaker Village.”To me, this was a sacred site,” Lee says of the thirty-foot-by-forty-foot rectangular, granite stone foundation (granite’s strength makes it among the best types of rock to use in building walls). Although the original house burned years before Lee discovered the site, the V-shaped cuts in the stone indicated that the foundation was built before the American Revolution. At that time, stonemasons used flat chisels and wedges to cut stone, before the steel drill’s invention in the early nineteenth century. Once discovered, Lee says, the foundation’s stone drew a lot of interest from developers and contractors. The former homeowner, an elderly woman, occasionally visited the site, reminiscing while sitting on the old front steps; the foundation’s then-owner, a contractor, wanted to be sure the right person got the stone.”The stone was beautiful,” Lee says. “When I got it, I felt like the luckiest girl on the planet.” An excavator was used to carefully pick up the stones and lay them in the nine dump trucks and three eighteen-wheelers used to transport the granite to the Perraults’ home.The art of building a stone wallWith the right groundwork, a stone wall can withstand weather as well as the passage of time. A good wall begins with a stable base. Stonemason Jeffrey Higgins of Rye started building the Perraults’ wall by digging several feet below ground and creating a base of crushed stone and gravel, which helps water drain away from the wall and protects it from the thaw-freeze cycles of New Hampshire winters.The Perraults’ retaining wall is a “battering wall,” one that deliberately leans inward as it rises. The wall uses its own gravity to hold back the soil.The stones in a traditional stone wall are stacked “dry,” without using cement or mortar (typically referred to as “mud”). Parts of the Perraults’ wall (the sections nearest to the carport) are partially cemented for more strength, but the majority of the stone was placed without mortar. The stones were carefully selected to “interlock” with one another. Using this method, two smaller rocks were placed between two larger rocks and vice versa to stabilize the wall.Higgins-who insisted on seeing the granite stones before building the Perraults’ wall-was amazed by the quality. “I took the job because of the quality of the stone,” he says. “It’s beautiful, hand-cut stone.” Similar to an artist constructing a painting, Higgins took time to plan the wall’s construction before building. “I think about where the rock goes first, and then I lay it out,” he says. He even declines conversation while he’s building, noting, “I can’t talk when I’m working because I get distracted.”Recycling more magicThe cobblestones used in the front steps, walkway and throughout the garden are also recycled. Lee noticed the stones as workers were tearing up a Manchester street. She asked them if the old cobblestones were available to be hauled away, and within a matterof days, Lee and Don transported the stones to Rye in their pickup truck.The granite left over from the Perraults’ retaining wall is still in their back yard, lined up along their fence. Now, ten years later, Lee and Don are still inspired by the stone, adding pieces to an Oriental garden and planning to extend the retaining wall along the backof the house. Lee says she has always appreciated the stone’s quality.”I’ve always realized the benefits of recycling and refitting,” she says, “and now it’s really difficult to find these stones.” The Perraults’ stone wall is a testament to hundreds of years of craftsmanship and being creative with these special, long-lived materials.