- The article below was in Saturday's Post. It is about the man who did the
unique concrete finishes on the walls of Meridian Hill Park and portions of
Sacred Heart Church, including the steps.
Concrete Proof Of One Man's Legacy To Washington
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 31, 2001; Page C01
Squeezed between two rather fancy edifices on a downtown street, the Walker
Building (734 15th St. NW) is politely unremarkable -- unless you pause for
a moment to consider the decorative panel angled into a niche high above the
It is a beautiful period piece, a colorful stylization of the kind that
gives much 1930s architecture its endearing appeal. It also is a neat little
piece of Washington history, for it was made by John Joseph Earley, a
stonecutter's son whose genius enriched the city from the 1910s into the
There's a strangeness about the panel that forces you to take a second look.
What is the puzzle? What accounts for the brightness of the reds, blues and
greens of the stylized plant and animal forms after three-quarters of a
century? What gives the design its peculiar, lively texture?
Even when you already know the answer, it still comes as a surprise: The
panel is made entirely of concrete. Yes, the ubiquitous building material
often acclaimed for its usefulness but seldom for its beauty -- and never
for its patterns and bright, lively colors.
Well, never say never. For several decades concrete was celebrated in
Washington, and to a lesser extent elsewhere in the country, for exactly
these qualities. This is due entirely to Earley, who made concrete his
If you think of concrete as just the pasty gray cement that is poured and
formed into sidewalks these days, I advise you to catch the Earley bug.
There is no exaggeration in the title of Frederick Cron's short biography of
Early, "The Man Who Made Concrete Beautiful."
The polychrome entry panel on the Walker Building (as well as mirror-image
window panels and decorative motifs for the third-floor windows) bears
Earley's unmistakable stamp. And his work turns up all over the map --
ceilings inside the Justice Department, ceilings and walkways outside the
original National Airport building, walls and balustrades in Meridian Hill
Park, in and on office buildings, churches, institutional buildings and
other government structures.
Even houses. There is a Polychrome Historic District on the National
Register of Historic Places, consisting entirely of five little houses
designed and constructed by Earley in the 1930s in Silver Spring, across
Colesville Road from the new Montgomery Blair High School.
A group of historians, preservationists, architects and other enthusiasts is
getting together today at the University of Maryland to shed new light on
the Earley phenomenon. The symposium was organized by the Latrobe Chapter of
the Society of Architectural Historians, the Art Deco Society of Washington
and the university's School of Architecture (where the sessions will take
Earley is difficult to categorize. He was at once an artisan, artist,
manufacturer, salesman and sometime architect. He was born in New York in
1881, the son of Irish immigrant James Earley. James moved to Washington in
1891 and, among other things, designed the buffalo nickel for the U.S. Mint.
John Earley apprenticed in his father's busy Washington stone-working shop
in Foggy Bottom, and took it over in 1906 at age 24. Gradually, with the
assistance of Basil Gordon Taylor, his lifelong business partner, he
transformed the shop into a highly productive studio in the very
20th-century medium of concrete.
With this background in the stone-carving trade, Earley's work was rooted in
the tradition of medieval crafts guilds. It built upon the respect for
hand-craftsmanship nurtured in this country by the Arts and Crafts movement
in the late 19th century. He ran a union shop organized along ancient
apprenticeship lines; his workers were carefully trained in a system that
placed a high value on near-perfect finishes.
At the same time, Earley's studio was technologically advanced. Like today's
electronic and biomedical entrepreneurs, Earley closely monitored the latest
government research -- indeed, he helped with some of the experiments
conducted by the federal Bureau of Standards to enhance the strength and
durability of both stucco and concrete. He patented several ingenious
From the artistic standpoint, Earley's primary innovation was what he called
"architectural" or "mosaic" concrete -- a method of mixing and exposing the
small stones and other materials (called "aggregate") that combine with
cement and water to form the body of the concrete. Before Earley, no one
paid much attention to this stuff; he transformed it into high craft.
With his inventive new methods, Earley was able to demonstrate something
wholly new in his work at Meridian Hill Park, that splendid urban green that
tumbles gracefully down the hill above W Street NW between 16th and 15th
streets. Made of Earley concrete, the walls, stairs and balustrades of this
park -- constructed between 1912 and 1936 -- are something to see.
Close up, viewed inch by inch, they show an amazingly even distribution of
little earth-toned pebbles dredged from the Potomac River, mixed with the
cement and exposed only after a layer of cement was scraped off with wire
brushes. There is something lively and almost magical about the irregular
pebbles, seen and touched close up. From a distance, they catch the light
beautifully. And, though a lot cheaper than stonework, Earley's concrete has
held up remarkably. He built for the long haul.
Meridian Hill Park was Earley's first important concrete job. The nave and
aisles inside the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic Church at 16th
Street and Park Road NW, completed in 1923, was the first large-scale
application of his trademark polychrome concrete. Here again, even when you
know the work is made of concrete, you find yourself surprised at the
clarity and durability of the colors -- azures, soft greens, sparkling reds.
Earley greatly expanded the number, kind and color of materials put into his
concrete panels, using little pieces of glass, ceramics, marble, quartz and
many other stones. In the end, he settled on about 200 carefully graded
colors, and had his workmen lay them down with a painter's perfectionism in
monochrome fields enlivened by bits and pieces of contrasting or
The man greatly benefited Washington in the process of inventing and
applying this new form of decoration, and also a couple of other locales.
(He did important work at Louisiana State University, in Nashville and in
Wilmette, Ill.) Though his firm continued until 1973, doing some fairly
distinguished work in the 1950s, the high-quality polychromy pretty much
expired with Earley's death in 1945.
Why did this happen? Well, the better question is, how could it not have
happened? The Earley process was relatively expensive. It was
labor-intensive. It required careful training and great skill. It was
overtly decorative, and thus was not in tune with the prevailing
architectural currents after World War II.
So, Washington can be thankful for its Earley treasures, and should be
protective of them. But make no mistake -- their lesson today is about an
attitude, and not a process or technique. John Earley passionately cared
about what he built, and it shows. You look at the lively concrete in
Meridian Hill Park, and then at most of the stuff we are throwing together
these days, from sidewalks to shopping malls, and you think, shame on us.
It is impossible to dismiss the man who wrote, in 1924, "Concrete is so
wonderfully responsive that it has wound a spell around me and around the
men in my studio. When the work is taken from the molds each morning and the
colors are exposed, there is something so spectacular, so magical about it,
that our enthusiasm never abates."