Baltimore has a complicated relationship with its own kitsch. We want to celebrate our quirks — the painted screens! the accents! — while still getting cred for being a classy East Coast metropolis. Worst-case scenario, we’ll end up with a theme-park version of what Baltimore once was, a city that’s all Cafe Hon, with no actual hons. Which is why I am registering my disapproval of the new Baltimore zoning code that would effectively make formstone — that iconic/ugly fake facade that’s seen all over the city — illegal.
As a quick drive through town will reveal, formstone is all over Baltimore. The trend began in the middle of the twentieth century, when homeowners were looking for a cheap way to cover the facades of their houses. Traveling salesmen sold it to eager city residents who could choose between various colors and sizes. Along with painted screens and marble steps, a formstone facade became one of the iconic markers of the Baltimore rowhouse “look.”
But, as the Baltimore Sun reported this week, the city’s zoning code overhaul goes so far as to ban formstone facades on new residential and commercial buildings, as well as on additions to existing rowhouses. The city claims that they want people to upgrade and invest in their homes; formstone doesn’t turn out to be the most long-lasting or sturdy siding. And, as the Sun points out, the tradition was on its way toward dying out without the city’s intervention; the remaining formstone crafstmen mostly spend their time repairing old structures, not putting up new ones.
Even so, the fight over formstone gets people riled. According to architectural historian Charlie Duff, “Formstone was to Baltimore what communism was to Czechoslovakia. It put a pall of gray on an otherwise vivid place.” Meanwhile, filmmaker John Waters thinks that it’s poised for a resurgence: “positively postmodern,” he says. What do you think?