A review of Potomac Marble, History of the Search for the Ideal Stone

By Nancy Spannaus

March 17, 2023—In 1814, the British Army landed a humiliating blow against the United States, burning the U.S. Capitol building, the White House, and numerous military installations. Destroyed in the conflagration was the original home of the House of Representatives, which had been created by the U.S.’s first architect, Benjamin Latrobe. It had been described as “the most beautiful legislative chamber in the Western world.”

"I Have Never Seen Anything So Beautifully Magnificent"
Potomac marble columns in the Old House Chamber, now Statuary Hall (Architect of the Capitol)

It is this dastardly act from the War of 1812  that sets the stage for Paul Kreingold’s book. Potomac Marble, History of the Search for the Ideal Stone. In this short, beautifully illustrated book, Kreingold presents both the history of the rebuilding of the Capitol, and of his own search for the location of the beautiful stone, Potomac Marble, that makes up the columns in what is now Statuary Hall.

That Hall served as the home of the House of Representatives from its completion under President Monroe to 1857. It is those columns of which Latrobe exclaimed: “I have never seen anything so beautifully magnificent.”

"I Have Never Seen Anything So Beautifully Magnificent"
A close-up of Potomac Marble, polished by the author (courtesy of Paul Kreingold)

The history of the rebuilding process, also led by Latrobe, began with the fight over whether to rebuild at all. Kreingold details that little-known struggle and the process of reconstruction, before transitioning into a more technical, but quite accessible discussion of the stone itself.  Kreingold uses his knowledge as a Master Naturalist to introduce you to some elementary geology, and some northern Virginia geography as well. You will enjoy his approach.

"I Have Never Seen Anything So Beautifully Magnificent"
The author in front of the quarry of Potomac Marble. (courtesy of Paul Kreingold)

I’m not going to go into the details – you should read the book!  And after that, you should try to visit Statuary Hall, and look at the columns. Latrobe, like many in the Founding generation, looked to the standards of beauty set by the Greek Classical period, especially the Parthenon. As Kreingold emphasizes, it was his goal to create a building of such beauty to represent our young Republic – and to endure for the ages.

In the conclusion to his book, Kreingold makes sure the reader gets his essential point: “What is important is that the British attempt to demoralize and dissolve the young United States of America failed.”

The book can be ordered here




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