Virginia Tech bookstore shopping list: Maroon and orange effect shirts, three textbooks, a rock…
There aren’t many college campuses where a piece of stone mined 10 minutes away is a valuable collectors item, but that’s the point. Tech’s campus is not like the rest.
“It’s hard to forget the Virginia Tech campus,” said retired director of university relations Clara Cox. “It’s not just the architectural style but the Hokie Stone combined with the architectural style.”
Hokie Stone is the nickname given to the rock that is primarily mined just down the road in the university-owned quarry near Highland Park. Over 80 percent of the stone comes from that quarry, while the rest is transported from Luster’s Gate.
All spirited names aside, the true name of the rock is limestone, which is a type of rock common along the Appalachian Mountains that was formed when this part of North America was under water. Dead organisms and other minerals were deposited along the bottom of the ocean floor where they were buried and turned into limestone. As the Appalachian mountains formed, the rock was pushed up to its current position.
The fossils of ancient gastropods, clams and possibly trilobites can be found within the walls of the buildings, according to geology professor Ken Eriksson. “If you walk around campus and use a magnifying glass, you can identify all sorts of fossils in the blocks of Hokie Stone,” he said.
Originally called “our native limestone” by former Tech President John McBryde, the stone was first used for the construction of the Performing Arts Building, which used to be a YMCA in 1899.
This was the beginning of an architectural movement to transform the brick exterior of Tech’s campus to one that could stand out from other schools.
“(Former) President Joseph D. Eggleston is the one who wanted to change the look of the campus because most of the buildings were brick. He thought they looked like factories, and that the place looked poverty-stricken,” said Cox, who also edited a brochure called “Hokie Stone: Virginia Tech’s Stone of Tradition.”
Tech adapted an architecture style known as neo-Gothic or Collegiate Gothic because of its aesthetic similarities to European colleges like Oxford and Cambridge. The towers and battlements that are on many of the buildings today are part of that same style.
During the early years, Hokie Stone was mined from a quarry where Derring Hall currently stands. A natural spring complicated the extraction process, making the mine a source of entertainment as well.
“The cadets would go swimming in the quarry, so they built a fence around it,” Cox said. “They had to declare it off-limits to keep them out of it because it was dangerous.”
From the construction of the Performing Arts Building until now, Tech has consistently designed each building to ensure that Hokie Stone is a part of the facade. Buildings like Derring and Cowgill Hall are exception to the rule, as they were designed following a nationwide movement toward modern architecture in the 70s.
However, it wasn’t until three years ago that the Board of Visitors passed an official requirement for each new building on campus to include at least some Hokie Stone. This solidified the precious limestone’s prominent place in Blacksburg as well as ensured the workers at the quarries that their mining services would be required for years to come.
“We’re producing 50 pallets a week, 50 weeks out of the year,” said Ricky Johnston, manager at the quarry near Highland Park.
Each pallet costs $440 and weighs 2,400 pounds of stone, meaning the quarry provides Tech with 6 million pounds of building material each year. Johnston said there is no real concern with running out of Hokie Stone any time soon either.
On a typical mining day, holes are drilled into the rock, which is then blasted from the hillside with black powder. Large chunks of stone are then taken down the hill to a diamond-toothed saw for precise cutting. From there, the stone is taken to a hydraulic breaker, which shapes it for building. The pieces are stacked on a pallet, weighed, and shipped to the construction site.
The quarry has taken advantage of the increasing technology over the years to produce Hokie Stone more efficiently with less manpower.
Currently, there are 12 workers at the quarry, which is a significant decrease from the 30 that were employed there a decade ago.
“We’re under the gun all the time (to produce Hokie Stone),” said Johnston. “We have been ever since I’ve been here.”
Johnston continues to hear that students, visitors and construction workers are surprised that Hokie Stone is mined locally.
“Everybody’s tickled with it,” he said. “They’re fascinated when they come down to see the quarry. They just can’t believe that there’s an area here in Blacksburg behind the housing division that the Hokie Stone comes from.”
Once the Hokie Stone reaches the job site, it is ready for facing by chisel and hammer and is then sorted into shapes, colors and sizes to be placed on the building.
While it may appear that each stone is distributed at random due to lack of a pattern, there are, in fact, about 20 different criteria for installation. Ironically, not creating a pattern is one of the criteria.
“You don’t want 12 pink stones next to each other because it’s going to look odd,” said project engineer for the Signature Engineering Building Eric Hotek. “The goal with (Hokie Stone) is really to see it and appreciate it, but you don’t want to have something jump out at you. It should all blend in.”
When an earthquake hit Louisa County, Va. in 2011, it was felt in Blacksburg, raising the question: How would these Hokie Stone buildings hold up against a more powerful earthquake?
“At different levels of the building and vertically as well, you will have a break in the stone so that when the building moves, it doesn’t crack the stone,” Hotek said. “Even if the building does move, whole sections of the building will move together.”
According to Eriksson, limestone is one of the hardest sedimentary rocks to exist. However that doesn’t prevent it from slowly deteriorating.
“Hokie Stone will eventually dissolve, as all limestone does to form caves, but that is millions of years in the future. Long after we’ve gone from this area will the buildings start dissolving,” he said.
Confident that building weathering isn’t an immediate threat, all who enter Blacksburg and beyond are free to experience Hokie Stone in its various functions.
A bench made of Hokie Stone sits in Northern Virginia as a memorial to the April 16 shooting victims. Football players touch a small piece of the stone before running out of the tunnel in Lane Stadium on gameday. One of the walls in the regional landmark Hotel Roanoke, is built from Hokie stone.
The bookstore sells it, the buildings are lined with it, and Tech tradition is permeated with it.
“It’s just so engrained in all of us now,” Cox said.