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Preserving a Sandstone Heritage

by | Nov 2, 2018 | Inspire |

Keith Phillips with Celtic cross.

The city of Tenino is a speck on the map of southern Washington. On a drive from Seattle to Portland, you’d probably miss it. But from the late 19th century well into the 20th, Tenino (pronounced Tah-NINE-oh) was known as the Sandstone Capital of the West. Builders from California to Montana kept its three quarries humming as they replaced scores of wood structures destroyed by fires with a stronger, more durable material. Tenino sandstone built the east wing of Washington’s first capitol building and Seattle’s first public library, as well as the Northern Pacific Railroad station in Missoula and churches and schools as far south as Stockton, California. The city’s own business district was lined with gracious sandstone buildings.

In the 1920s, the boom began to fade as builders switched to less expensive materials like brick, concrete, and steel. In what some considered the death blow, Tenino’s own school board chose brick over its native stone to build a new high school. The industry fell into decline and never recovered.


Bringing Sandstone Back

Bag of Groceries sculpture at Tenino Market Fresh Supermarket. Carved by Keith Phillips.

Though the industry is gone, Tenino’s sandstone heritage lives on through the work of master stone carver Keith Phillips, 71, who uses traditional hand tools to carve stone quarried from the last of Tenino’s three quarries. At a modest workshop known as The Shed, he is passing on his skills to a new generation of Tenino stone carvers.

Phillips’ handiwork can be spotted throughout the city—in a large mortar and pestle sculpture in front of the pharmacy, an elaborately-carved cross in front of First Presbyterian Church, and a whimsical sandstone bag of groceries next to the local supermarket. He started carving as a hobby in college after relatives gave him some Tenino sandstone. Later, he made stone fireplaces and did other small jobs. When a position as the quarry’s night watchman arose, he seized it, hanging around old-time quarrymen by day to gain pointers about cutting the stone. He learned carving by trial and error and through books.

Around the same time Phillips began receiving commissions for sculptures, the city started taking an interest in its history, commissioning restoration work on its old buildings. “I fell into a situation made in heaven,” Phillips said.

Ed Salerno carves Hard Candy sculpture.

His reputation spread and he soon had more work than he could handle. He has helped restore the state capitol in Olympia, buildings at the University of Washington, a historic museum in Oregon, a lighthouse, and many other buildings, as well as doing sculptures.

These days, Phillips gets help from Ed Salerno, who visited his studio a few years ago after seeing photos of his work at the city’s museum. A graphic designer, Salerno was intrigued by stone carving but had no experience.

Phillips taught him to carve leaves, then letters, and eventually, entire sculptures. “He built my confidence level, always pushing me toward the next thing,” Salerno said.

Dan Miller at The Shed.

“I shared with Ed as much as I could and he’s pretty much on his own now,” Phillips said. The two do projects together and separately, and recently collaborated on traditional “green man” and “green woman” carvings—faces surrounded by leaves—for a Tenino park.

Several years ago, Phillips and Salerno were joined by Dan Miller, who trained as a stone mason in his native England but had trouble finding work in Seattle, where he moved with his American wife. Impressed with a YouTube video showing Phillips making a sundial, he hunted the artisan down, and now works at The Shed two days a week.

“Working with Keith has changed my life,” Miller said. “It’s real stone carving and he’s a master mason. We’re passionate about what we do, and I can learn a lot from him.”


Keeping Traditions Alive

Though the carvers use electric saws and drills to break down the huge blocks of sandstone they get from the quarry, for restoration and carving jobs they use traditional hand tools, including a mallet, a chisel, a stone cutter’s framing square, and a compass. “It makes you appreciate how skilled the medieval masons were,” Miller said.

Ed Salerno, Dan Miller, Colby Russell, and Keith Phillips.

Softer and easier to carve than granite or marble, sandstone is well-suited to the old instruments. Though there are slight color variations, ranging from bluish-gray to tan, its texture is smooth and uniform. “It has the evenness of white bread, with no bumps,” Phillips said. “You can carve an angel’s face and it will come out with no blemishes.”

In addition to their carving and restoration work, Phillips and Salerno teach stone carving classes at The Shed. Salerno also has a new apprentice, 17-year-old Colby Russell, who is the great-great-great grandson of the founder of one of the local quarries. Like many of the city’s residents, Colby wants its sandstone tradition to live on. “Even if I don’t make carving a career goal, it’s something to hold onto for future generations,” he said.

“It’s important for young people to be exposed to traditional, age-old architecture,” Phillips said. “So many beautiful old buildings that should have been preserved have been torn down. That kind of thinking can change if there are more people like Dan, Ed, and me.”


stone craftsmanship