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Rebuilding New Hampshire’s treasured granite stone walls, one rock at a time

  • Kevin Gardner rebuilds a stone wall in a Manchester backyard Oct. 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Kevin Gardner adjusts the placement of a stone as he rebuilds a wall in a Manchester backyard Oct. 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Kevin Gardner surveys the stone wall he is building in a Manchester backyard Oct. 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Stones litter the ground around Kevin Gardner’s workspace in a Manchester backyard Oct. 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Kevin Gardner rebuilds a stone wall in a Manchester backyard Oct. 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Kevin Gardner selects stones from a work pile as he rebuilds a stone wall in a Manchester backyard Oct. 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Kevin Gardner selects stones from a work pile as he rebuilds a stone wall in a Manchester backyard Oct. 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Thursday, October 26, 2017

Leaning over a metal rail in a brown shirt jacket and work jeans, Kevin Gardner of Hopkinton quietly considered the half-built wall at his feet as he’d done time and time again over the past 45 years.

His eyes, obscured by a faded maroon ball cap, scanned the 2-foot rocky structure in front of him and the ragged stones in his hands. With confidence, he made his placements. Sometimes his building blocks would require a flip or rotation. Sometimes a second or third position would be considered. And sometimes the fit would be instantaneous.

“This is a craft that you either have a temperament for or don’t, and if you do then it’s interesting and that’s what happened to me,” he said.

Gardner, 66, first learned dry-masonry stonework from his jack-of-all-trades uncle, Derek Owen, when he worked for him while attending college. The work clicked with Gardner, so he stayed with it, and joined what had become a family business. They developed a reputation for restoring the classic New England stone walls the old-fashioned way and have built or repaired hundreds of walls as well as stone foundations, bridges, wells and more.

Last week, Gardner was working on the restoration of a garden wall in a Manchester backyard. He was about 25 hours in and only a sixth of the way through the job, which includes slowly stripping the stone wall down to its foundation, rebuilding and adding more stone to raise it. The job is small, compared to his usual projects.

“Most of what I’m doing these days is larger-scale restoration, traditional work. Mostly barn foundations and that sort of thing, which are obviously on a considerably more involved scale than this and require extensive dismantling,” he said.

The larger work is both the same and different.

“The basic techniques of laying stone into coherent structures are essentially the same no matter what the size of the structure is. In a barn foundation, the stone would be typically five, six times larger than this in most cases,” he said.

What’s also the same is that Gardner tends to work alone, with the assistance of a skid steer and fork attachment on larger jobs. His preference for solo work stems from the value of consistency throughout different sections of a project.

“There are builders who will only choose select kinds of shapes to use in their projects,” he explained. “Some people favor stone that is squared off or broken into regular kinds of rectangles and so forth. Others will try to use all the random shapes that come to hand and that’s what I do because that’s what makes it look like an older piece of work. That was the traditional way of going about pulling things together.”

Gardner describes his style as anonymous. There is no preference in the shape or size of the fieldstones he uses or the way he assembles them. The restorative nature of his work aims to be timeless.

At this point in his life and career, Gardner only takes on only a couple of projects each year and gives regular lectures on New England stone walls as a “Humanities to Go” presenter. He is known for beginning his talks by emptying a bucket full of small stones onto a table and building a miniature wall throughout the presentation.

The lack of projects has nothing to do with a lag in the industry. On the contrary, Gardner said: Demand for dry-laid stonework has increased and he will often pass on jobs.

“I know some other really good builders and I’ll give their names out even though I know they don’t have time to do anyone else’s job either,” he said.

The stone walls aren’t a fad, however. Gardner said the demand for his work has been high for quite some time.

“We’re in the middle of a fairly substantial renaissance in dry-laid stone work right now, which has been growing since the late ’70s because of the boom in residential housing that has brought with it demand for landscape services,” he said.

In these modern times, homeowners have a variety of options for retaining walls and other landscaping structures, but Gardner said the appeal of the traditional New England stone wall look is strong.

“A lot of people prefer this, rather than something that is very, very tight and very flat and tries to make stone behave as though it was bricks or concrete blocks,” he said.

Gardner noted that there are a lot more stone wall masons working in New Hampshire than when he was starting out, but there is no one he’s passed the tradition on to directly.

“I don’t work full time at this anymore, so I’m not really busy enough to carry an apprentice or have a bunch of helpers,” he said.

With that said, Gardner is still passing his knowledge to the next generation, distilled into pages of two books: The Granite Kiss: Traditions and Techniques of Building New England Stone Walls and his release earlier this year, Stone Building: How to Make New England Style Walls and Other Structures the Old Way.

Decades from now, these books may serve as manuals for the next generation of masons rebuilding New Hampshire’s treasured granite stone walls.

But on that cool autumn afternoon in Manchester, Gardner was focused on building his wall.

One stone at a time.

(Elizabeth Frantz can be reached at efrantz@cmonitor.com or on Twitter
@lizfrantz.)