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University Finishes Symphony in Stone

Carnegie Mellon's long-dormant facade project takes its final shape

ROMAN columns. Hints of the Renaissance. A gargoyle or two. For 75 years, that's about all that students at Carnegie Mellon University could see as they passed by the unfinished facade of the College of Fine Arts. Now, the neglected facade is alive with activity again - thanks to a generous alumnus, two architects, and an international team of stone carvers. Their goal: complete five large niches that have stood unfinished for three-quarters of a century.

Some things are worth waiting for.

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"Every architect's and sculptor's dream is to work with so much stone," says Paul Rosenblatt, one of the project's architects.

But costs are so high and expertise so limited that stone carving is very nearly a lost art in the United States. The university hired a New York-based company, Cathedral Stoneworks, to recruit a team of British and French carvers with the skills necessary to do the work.

Carnegie Mellon's "Niches Project" is one of the largest stone-carving efforts now under way in the US.

The project began around 1910. The university's original architect, Henry Hornbostel, envisioned that the niches would represent five major styles of art and architecture: Greek, Roman, Gothic, Renaissance, and non-Western.

A team of Italian stone carvers started work on the Roman entryway and the Renaissance niche. But the work stopped in 1913, for reasons that remain a campus mystery.

Finally, in the late 1980s, a $1 million gift from Carnegie Mellon alumnus Verner Purnell got the project moving again.

University personnel researched Hornbostel's drawings, drew up plans, and hired architects to refine the work. In October, the new team of stone carvers began their two-year project. Stone carving may seem romantic from afar, but up close it is painstaking and dirty work.

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Limestone dust covers Emmanuel Fourchet as he crooks his neck to hand-chisel some fine details into the stone. At times he has to lie flat on his back to get just the right angle.

There's little margin for error, since mistakes can't be erased. "Etched in stone" takes on real meaning up on the carvers' scaffolding.

Tastes have changed since 1913 and so has the project. The new architects have simplified the decoration in order to draw attention to main features (and save money).

Carvers have recast the university's current dean of fine arts as a kind of Bacchanalian figure. And computers supplement the architects' sketches that Hornbostel worked with.

But some things - like the chink chink chink of chisel against stone - never change. Even after 75 years.

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