The Grotto

This is the seventh in a series of ten short essays on the design and stone work I did on Rice Mountain for the Berg family over an 18 year period beginning in the late 1980's.

The terrace walls for the perennial beds were built to a prepared schematic. The finished form was identical to the layout of the clay model I’d devised. Mrs. Berg must have been ready to break loose from formal constraint after its completion because her next assignment for me was the grotto. A grotto, in 18th century terms, was an artificial cave used as a decorative feature in European gardens. They were associated with water and often constructed in the form of fancifully arranged rocks. In other words, the opposite of conventional. The grotto was conceived as it was built, the topography of the site and the stone at hand directing the ebb and flow of the design. After the east-facing bank was excavated down to bedrock I was left with two possible approaches to wheel in my stone supplies. From north and south I added to the sides of the construction, completing the full 9’ height at the center of the grotto, first. The two 7” tall standing stones were set and supported with wood cribbing until the weight of their stony crowns fixed them in place.

Winter was a quiet time on the mountain. The hustle and bustle of summer days, when the parking lots were brim full of worker’s trucks and vans, was a dim memory. I enjoyed the solitude and distraction-free atmosphere of working through the frozen months. When I needed to warm up, there was always the “cave” of the furnace room under the house to retreat to.

From beginning to end in the construction of the grotto my aim was to make delight. Dry stone work relies on mass for strength. The weight of each stone creates the friction that holds it and its neighbors in place. Therefore, there are absolute limits to the degree dry stone can be employed for the creation of spacial volumes. Corbels, cantilevers, posts and beams, plus an arch were all methods I used to give the grotto its sense of wonder and surprise.

Hidden deep within the grotto’s voids and cracks is a web-work of plumbing lines. They supply the water that weeps from the grotto walls when the system is activated. The sound and sight of dripping, sparkling water accentuates the notion that sprites could be making this their underworld habitation. Capping off the grotto is a family of grotesques. Three weirdly distorted stones serve as covers for the light wells that help illuminated the cavern interior. These geologic anomalies nestle into a thick mat of roof vegetation and wink at secrets yet to be revealed.