Stone Carving in Washington, D.C.

Carved in Time

Washington, D.C.’s modern-day memorials capture moments in history using a timeless vocabulary: the ancient art of stone-carved letters. 

In today’s digital era, we often lose sight of the fact that the earliest and most memorable messages within the built environment are carved in stone. From the hieroglyphics (“sacred carvings”) of ancient Egypt to the embodiment of the Latin letterform in Trajan’s Column in Rome, hand-carved letters are the result of a basic human instinct: to carve in stone what we fear may otherwise be forgotten. 

In the modern world, Washington, D.C.’s monuments and memorials offer some of the world’s finest examples of stone-carved lettering. They have been a part of D.C.’s visual vocabulary since the completion of the Washington Monument in 1885, when all states and territories were encouraged to donate memorial stone carvings from their best craftsmen. 

After a half-century hiatus, modern-day memorial design has once again begun to renew the D.C. landscape. While some of the newer monuments move away from the neoclassical tradition, all rely on stone-carved letters to help convey their messages of dignity and remembrance. 

Traditional hand-carved lettering in stone has become a rare art form. But for Nick Benson, the third-generation stone carver and letterer whose shop has been involved in most of the national memorials created in recent years, the process still begins just as it did in Rome 2,000 years ago—with finely tuned letterforms drawn by hand with a broad-edge brush, custom designed for each project. 

Benson is the owner and creative director of The John Stevens Shop (Newport, R.I.), founded in 1705. Legend has it that Nick’s father, John Benson, was the one who recommended that architect Maya Lin use the Optima typeface on the Vietnam Memorial design, which in turn became a huge trend in stone-carved lettering. 

“As one of the few remaining stone carvers who still hand draw custom lettering for each project, we scrutinize our work down to the smallest details,” says Benson. “We spend hours manipulating each hand-drawn character in place amongst the numerous grout seams in the stone.” 

We asked Benson and stone carvers Marcel Mächler and Peter Andrusko, as well as architect Friedrich St. Florian, to give us an insider’s look at stone-carving in this new generation of D.C. memorials. 

A tradition worth honoring

For the newest memorial on the National Mall, the National World War II Memorial (dedicated in 2004), architect Friedrich St. Florian chose timeless, solid granite. Its 56 wreathed pillars represent the U.S. states and territories of 1945, and 43-ft.-tall, mirror gateway arches represent the Pacific and Atlantic fronts. 

“A paramount objective was that it must integrate into the existing vernacular of the site,” says St. Florian. It also respects the traditional design principles of stone carving, including the rule that “a stone should never be cut where it changes in form.” 

The John Stevens Shop was responsible for typeface design, inscription content, location plans, and design layouts, all spanning a two-year process. Due to the granite’s large, detailed grain pattern and the size of the letterforms required, the team created U-cut letters. “Generally, a deep V-cut will appear bolder as it casts dramatic shadows when used with large letterforms, but a U-cut lends itself to thinner strokes and is used to accommodate smaller characters,” says Benson.

Where stone flies

The United States Air Force Memorial, designed by James Ingo Freed with Pei Cobb Freed & Partners and dedicated in 2006, combines 270-ft.-high stainless steel spires with intimate, inspirational quotation walls. The Arlington, Va., site is designed like an airfield with a landing strip, taxiway, and takeoff area, each section with different types of stone-carved lettering. 

“It was one of our more challenging projects due to the sheer scale, scope, and variety of carvings,” says Marcel Mächler of Marcel Mächler, Inc. (Twin Peaks, Calif.). The inscriptions were a mixture of both hand-carved and sandblasted V-cut letterforms. “Originally we set out to hand carve everything, but eventually had to resort to sandblasting once the budget tightened,” notes Mächler.

A major challenge was how to best transfer a computer-generated 2D symbol for the Air Force Medal of Honor into stone without losing the significant details. Mächler worked closely with environmental graphic designer Tracy Turner, eventually choosing to depict the medal in bas relief. The shallow 3D effect with rounded-out details maintained the traditional vernacular of the project aesthetic. 

Remembering 9/11

The most recent example of exemplary stone carving in D.C. can be seen at the Pentagon Memorial in Arlington, Va. Designed by Julie Beckman and Keith Kaseman of Kaseman Beckman Advanced Strategies and dedicated September 11, 2008, it honors the 59 passengers on board Flight 77 and the 125 personnel inside the Pentagon who lost their lives during the 9/11 tragedy. 

“The 9/11 memorial is simple and elegant,” says Mächler. It features 184 cantilevered benches emerging from the gravel and hovering above an illuminated bed of water, each inscribed with a victim’s name. A black granite entry monument formally introduces the memorial site and names the victims. Due to their small character size, the stone-carved letters were sandblasted. Although small in scale, the letters create a dramatic impact by helping visitors remember the event and reflect on its impact on individuals. 

Nothing to fear

Designed by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and dedicated in 1997, the FDR Memorial is a favorite among stone carvers, designers, and tourists alike. 

“From a design standpoint it’s unlike any of the other memorials in D.C.,” says Peter Andrusko, Written in Stone Productions (Portland, Ore.). Often cited for its narrative qualities, subtle use of materials, and appropriateness to the site and city, the eight-acre memorial includes four landscaped “rooms,” with impeccable carved lettering, intricate sculptures, waterfalls, bas relief elements, and bronze pedestrian signage (by Biesek Design). John Benson (The John Stevens Shop) hand-carved FDR’s famous “nothing to fear” quote; the rest of the inscriptions were sandblasted.

Memorable challenges

Along with the tremendous honor of participating in a memorial project in D.C. comes significant challenge. Each project differs in process and culture based on the owner agency or foundation involved, as well as whether the stone carvers work with the architect, designer, or stone contractor. 

But most stone-carving projects have common challenges. The biggest is lighting, says Mächler. “Significant consideration should be given early on to ensure both proper natural and external illumination. If the inscription does not have appropriate lighting it will appear to have no contrast and will look painted on.” 

The extremities of D.C.’s weather present another challenge. The National Mall is actually 10-ft. below sea level, thus intensifying the winter’s freezing temperatures and frequent snowfalls. On the WWII Memorial site, Nick Benson recalls how his 1,000-ft.-long compressor hoses began to freeze. Summers in the nation’s capital tend to be hot and humid with frequent thunderstorms, which prevent contractors from working continuous hours in the heat. And beyond the forces of Mother Nature, there are also strict national security guidelines to follow. Security clearances for contractors working on site at federal properties require a long, arduous process. 

Commemorating change

The allure of D.C.’s memorials is simple and timeless. Memorials take us back to a time before the age of computer-generated fonts and manufactured stone simulations. They remind us that, just as it is important for designers to innovate, it is equally important to uphold and build on artistic traditions that have stood the test of time. With several new memorials already on the drawing boards, D.C.’s stone-carved landscape will continue to evolve through the 21st century. For a nation that is now embracing change and striving to renew the spirit of our union, this new, modern chapter of the art form is a commemoration in and of itself. 

--By Nicole Roberts, segdDESIGN No. 27, 2009

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