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Alabama marble called whitest in world

SYLACAUGA (AP) — A short distance off the paved road and into the woods, tremendous white marble blocks appear. Enter a clearing and, as far as the eye can see, the earth has been opened up to yield white stone. Fractured blocks sit askew, with marble chunks piled like ruined walls. Marble shards pave the road.

If it weren't for the red Alabama dirt, you'd think you'd come upon the ruins of an ancient city.

Quarry manager Vito Verzura is leading the development of Alabama Marble Co., a small but growing operation that hopes to repopularize what its fans call the hardest, whitest marble in the world.

Rivals Italian stone

Vulcan's sculptor, Giuseppe Moretti, praised Alabama white marble as equal to the famous marble of Carrera, Italy. Out if it, Moretti sculpted the work he considered his masterpiece, "The Head of Christ," which is on display at Vulcan Park. He liked it so much he bought a quarry.

Alabama White Marble was used in the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the U.S. Supreme Court and the bust of Lincoln in the Capitol. In downtown Birmingham, it decorates the interior of the John Hand Building and the exterior of the SouthTrust Bank branch at the corner of Second Avenue North and 20th Street. In dozens of downtown buildings, staircases and floors are made of Sylacauga marble. In older Birmingham schools, even the toilets were sculpted from the stuff.

Verzura's company has installed new cutting, polishing and packaging equipment and is selling the marble, cut into tiles and strips, to retail outlets. He's also selling blocks to an Italian marble company that transports it to Italy, finishes it and sells it alongside Italian marble.

But most Alabama white marble dug out of the ground is ground to a powder that is used in products ranging from chewing gum and toothpaste to paper and paint.

International product

A Swiss company, Omya, and a French company, Imerys, own two large adjacent marble quarries in Sylacauga. They, too, are a sight to behold. Instead of picturing an archaeological site, picture instead miniature versions of the Alps. A white dust covers the ground. Yellow bulldozers crawl up what appear to be snow-capped mountains but actually are mounds of ground-up marble that await shipping around the world.

If it seems a shame that such exquisite rock is ground for such mundane use, worry not: there is no shortage of the stuff. The Sylacauga marble belt, first quarried in 1836, is 32 miles long, a mile-and-a-half wide and up to 600 feet thick. It stretches from the Coosa River to southeast of Talladega.

Verzura said the 50-acre quarry site he is developing should last between 50 and 100 years.

He and a partner have purchased an old quarry near the town of Sycamore that is four times as big. He has plenty to sell to sculptors who, on rare occasions, visit the quarry.

Marine life long dead

Geologist and author Jim Lacefield said the marble started out hundreds of millions of years ago as marine shellfish. Deposits of those shellfish were laid down in layers, compacted and cooked during the collision of continents that produced the Appalachian Mountains, he said.

Sylacauga marble is prized for its creamy whiteness and a quality of translucence that allows light to pass through it.

Marble is Alabama's state rock, and Sylacauga's deposits merit a verse in the state song.

The marble is streaked with veins of various colors. Verzura said he's identified portions of the quarry with distinctly colored veins of green, pink, gray, black and gold. Americans tend to want the purest white, Verzura said, while his Italian customers appreciate strong veins, a preference he shares. "The more veiny, to me, the more beautiful," he said.

Birmingham's Bernard Strauss, a financial adviser for Morgan Stanley, owns the quarry Verzura is developing. Strauss at one time worked as a contractor, and some historic renovations he was working on required Sylacauga marble. It was hard to get, and Strauss thought a quarry would be a good investment. But the business was tough at the time, about six years ago, he said. "We did just enough to stay in business," Strauss said.

Strauss is happy to see Verzura expand the operation, which employs as many as 60 workers. "It's the finest white marble in the world. Without question. The grain structure is very, very fine. Shined, it looks like china."

Used extensively from the turn of the century through the 1920s, marble isn't used much anymore for building exteriors. Granite is more durable and less likely to chip.

"It still has a niche market it terms of historic renovation," Zacharias said.

But for interior spaces, marble is making something of a comeback, said David Tennyson, a sales representative for Masonry Arts.

Marble sells from $65 to $120 a square foot, which is less expensive than high-end composite compounds and in about the same price range as granite, he said. Masonry Arts will be installing Alabama white marble in the bathroom and the kitchen in this year's Decorator's Show house. The marble has personality, with each stone having a unique pattern of veins, Tennyson said. The homegrown quality helps, too.

"Most of our stones are imported, and the fact that you can get it here in Alabama is a selling point," Tennyson said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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