The Gift of Granite

Photograph by Eric Roth

1798 until the 1920s, Cape Ann’s great granite industry boomed, as early inhabitants of the area cut massive columns of stone from the peninsula’s 450-million-year-old quarries to be shipped up and down the eastern seaboard and beyond. Today, most of those quarries have filled with rain and spring water to form deep ponds and reservoirs. Many are now hidden in woodlands, reclaimed by nature—something Rockport resident Dave Araneo appreciates.

“There’s a real quarry atmosphere here,” says Dave, who, together with his son, Matt Araneo, owns Araneo Landworks. “There’s the coastline that the tourists know about, but then there’s the interior—the whole place was stripped and was a heavy-duty working area.” (A historic photograph from 1888 shows a lone elm tree onsite.) Today, the Araneo property supports a mature forest.

Walking through the landscape, Dave points with contagious enthusiasm to all the pieces of cut stone scattered about. “The artifacts we find here are amazing.” He is a man who clearly adores the beauty of stone in its natural environment. Even after 21 years in his home and garden, he still seems in awe of what was “just left behind everywhere.”

But let’s back up…Dave’s property requires some explanation.

Decades ago, Louis Polack, a highly eccentric antiques dealer, built a home into the ruins of an 1830 barn for oxen, which were once used to pull granite from the quarry. Steam power rendered them unnecessary, and ultimately it became a dairy farm. “It’s a ruins,” says Dave. “And because it’s a ruins you can do anything.”

Dave and his wife, Nan, bought the house in 1992, and for the past two-plus decades, the family has woven itself into the topography that surrounds it. The garden, in all its meandering glory, has been a true labor of love. “When we bought the house, the only thing here was the shed,” notes Nan. Today, there’s hardly a place the eye can land without something special to behold.

In the garden, Dave picks a new project to work on every year. The first year had him, with help from his two sons, building an entry waterfall inside the old barn walls. Over the years, other walls, walkways, and freestanding artworks, including four water features and two moon gates, have been erected. The larger moon gate is a showstopper, and something Dave is happy to talk about. “An arch is one of the greatest geometrical forms of all time—it’s very strong. The Romans didn’t use rebar, and their stuff is still standing.”

Describing the form’s fortitude, he points to the smaller of the two gates, which he made by stacking stone around a plastic garbage can and then kicking the can out. “I figured it was going to be a kind of Andy Goldsworthy thing, where you build it and then it falls down but it’s been here for about 15 years. It’s really funky—you would think it would just fall apart, but it has survived my kids, windstorms, snow, and now grandkids. It’s still there.”

At times, inspiration comes from far afield, as in the case of a fairly recently added water feature modeled after Arizona’s Slot Canyons, where rocks get stuck between boulders during flash floods—others were lodged when melted glaciers turned to rivers that ripped through the canyons, leaving stone suspended. “Most of our work is just mimicking nature,” says Dave.

To the house, the couple added a kitchen wing and built an adjoining patio from huge slabs of granite—replete with “dog holes,” which were used as part of a system for hoisting the stone out of the quarry—that had been the barn floor. Inside, the barn door’s frame, chiseled door jam, and hinges lend character to the kitchen. En route to inspecting the patio, Dave points to a wall that he suspects was once part of a corral. “There’s something about the randomness—I love it—they just put it together, they didn’t finish it off, they just kind of laid it down.” Follow a footpath to the back of the property and discover a gaping quarry reservoir out of which came a tremendous amount of granite, taken by train to port. Stone left Cape Ann via its many coves—Lane’s Cove, Granite Pier, and Rockport among them. During the industry’s heyday, there were, in addition to the large commercial quarries, smaller, privately owned quarries. Many of those smaller quarries are located within a stone’s throw of the Araneo home. “The whole interior here is littered with these little pools,” says Dave. “It’s quite a unique environment. Some of these little quarries are just beautiful. To me it’s like a natural water garden.” He points to a white pine sapling that has taken root between two plates of stone and smiles: “Bonsai.”

Also onsite are Nan’s yoga studio, a solar-heated greenhouse for growing greens all winter long, and a cloistered teahouse, where, it is said, Louis Polack sipped his last cup of tea before dying peacefully among songbirds.

The Great Depression may have ushered in the collapse of Cape Ann’s once-thriving granite industry, but the two acres belonging to the Araneo family are a testament to the times and the gifts they left behind.

For the business, Araneo Landworks, Dave and Matt sometimes source cut stone from still-somewhat-active Vernon’s Pit in Lanesville, though the majority of what they work with is natural stone from all around their property or from dug-out foundations and blasting work.

“Cape Ann is full of stone—that is our great natural resource,” notes Dave. “There’s quarried stone, there are grout piles, and the glacier dropped all these beautiful round stones everywhere.” Matt chimes in with a smirk: “We’ve got rocks.”

They work with old hand tools because it brings out the grain and character of the stone. “It’s the preferred way to do it,” notes Dave. “A lot of times, the accidental part, if you are aware and can see it, is the nicest.”

They keep two stone yards—one onsite at the Rockport residence and one in Gloucester, where Matt now lives. They have, on hand, stones good for making benches, tables, retaining walls, stepping paths, stairs, and artful additions, which often come in the form of monolithic stones. “A lot of times we will incorporate the natural with the finished, which is really nice,” says Dave.

“We are always evolving,” he adds. “In fact, the whole consciousness around landscape design is evolving.” When he started in the business, there was hardly any stonemasonry on residential properties. Today, homeowners’ ever-growing appreciation for it is the very foundation on which Araneo Landworks is built.

Article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of Northshore Home magazine.

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