Dressed in Basic Black

Monday, May 09, 2011 Road Junkies 0 Comments

EDINBURGH, Scotland — Back in the days of the industrial revolution, Edinburgh furnaces belched smoke and soot into the air constantly.  Coupled with haze from the chimneys of tightly packed tenements, this pollution gave the city the name Auld Reekie (Old Smokie).

The soot and smoke had a welcome host in the pores of the city's buildings, most of which were constructed of native Scottish blond or red sandstone.  Though beautiful to design with and easily cut, sandstone is subject to staining from both chemical pollution and acid-producing microbes that live within the stone.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 resolved the soot and smoke problems,but most of Edinburgh’s classic Gothic and Georgian buildings remain coated in a black residue and stain.  Nearby Glasgow, which had a similar development and character, attacked the sooty buildup in the 1960s and following decades with an aggressive program of stone cleaning.  Edinburgh was slower to hop on the sandblasting, power-washing bandwagon, and most locals are glad of it.

Even under ideal conditions, sandstone is subject to deterioration through the natural process of weathering.   Sandstone, after all, consists of grains of sand, which can be eroded by rainwater, through improper drainage, and other elements.   The sandstone east face of the U.S. Capitol building was so deteriorated last century that in the late 1950s a new east front was built 32.5 feet east of the old front, faithfully reproducing the sandstone structure in marble. The old sandstone walls were left in place to become a part of the interior wall.  This was an extreme solution and one that is not feasible in a city where most of the historic structures are faced with sandstone.

Edinburgh Castle Complex
Scotland’s geological makeup is rich with sandstone.  At one time, 1500 sandstone quarries were operating in the country.  Much of the Scottish architectural heritage was built of sandstone, including utilitarian buildings, housing and historic structures.  After the demise of widespread pollution generated a stonecleaning campaign in the mid 1960s, concern built in historic preservation quarters about the damage that this cleaning was causing to the fragile sandstone fabric.

Sir Walter Scott Monument
Short term benefits had been gained at the expense of the long term welfare of important historic buildings, and by the late 1980s, the damaging and disfiguring effects of cleaning spurred preservationists to rally against the process.  Because of the physical changes that can and do occur, stone cleaning has been considered an ‘alteration’ to historic buildings since 1992 and subject to the rigorous approval process of other changes proposed to heritage properties.  Some researchers even assert that the sooty stain provides a protective coating that may protect the sandstone from further decay.

An activist group formed a few years ago to oppose the demolition of historic properties in the older section of the city called itself by the cheeky acronym of SOOT (Save Our Old Town).    Many visitors agree with locals that the Gothic and Georgian structures of Edinburgh look best dressed in black.  The city is often described as one of Europe’s most striking, lending new meaning to the 1960s adage, “Black is beautiful.”