The last stone cutter of Wilkeson

Lloyd Livernash and his stone work at the Anderson/Langdon Hall at the University of Puget Sound recently.
Lloyd Livernash and his stone work at the Anderson/Langdon Hall at the University of Puget Sound recently. lwong@thenewstribune.com

It’s been more than a half century since Lloyd Livernash left his job. But, if he had his way, he’d still be there today.

He’d still be carving animals and cutting columns out of Wilkeson sandstone.

Livernash, 88, is the last surviving stone carver of the Walker Cut Stone Co.

“I would have spent a lifetime cutting stone,” the Buckley resident said, introducing himself recently, his hands still delivering a firm grip.

But stone work disappeared in the 1950s and quarries fell silent.

“Everything went to concrete,” Livernash said without emotion. He’s had a long time to get over it.

Livernash found a new career as a schoolteacher. But he kept cutting stone — an odd job here and there — into the 1980s.

Today, a few stone cutters still practice the craft, but the work is mostly decorative. Livernash and his cohorts made the bones and skins of buildings. Now they’re filled by concrete, rebar and prefab products made to look like stone.

The Walker Cut Stone Co. got started in the 1800s. A large plant was located on Center Street in Tacoma, where stone was cut and shipped to build the Capitol complex in Olympia, Tacoma’s Walker Apartments building and many other projects.

Then-owner Robert Walker moved the company in 1946 to Wilkeson, where the quarry was.

In 1949, when Livernash was a few years out of the Marine Corps Reserve, he got an apprenticeship at the stone-cutting company.

The shop manager, Philipp Michel, took a liking to him — even after Livernash flunked his first test.

“He drew me a fig leaf and said, ‘Carve it,’” Livernash recalled. “I tried carving it. It didn’t look like anything.”

He joined the operation when it still employed eight to 10 stone workers.

Blocks of sandstone five feet square and 10 to 13 feet long were cut from the quarry and taken to the plant. A saw in the stone works cut the blocks into workable slices.

“It took 16 hours to cut a block,” Livernash said.

Making a complicated carving involved several steps. First, a model was made in clay. Then, a plaster of Paris cast was made and used to make another model out of plaster of Paris.

Using T-squares and calipers as guides, Livernash and the other carvers replicated the model in stone.

“You would pick out the highest points and cut that,” he said. “So, you’re going back and forth, back and forth.”

He used an air hammer and an assortment of tools to carve the fine details.

It was hot, dusty and noisy work.

“Oh, sometimes your hands would get tired,” he said. “Mostly they got hot from the tool.”

Livernash has a collection of photos — a greatest hits of his work that ranges from gate posts to cathedrals.

He doesn’t compare himself to Michelangelo — he’s never been to Europe — but he was the final link in an unbroken chain of craftspeople dating back thousands of years.

They are the masons and carvers who built temples in Rome, cathedrals in Spain and castles in England. When the New World beckoned, they crossed the Atlantic and passed their knowledge on to young men like Livernash.

In Tacoma, Livernash’s work can be seen in the two carved owls perched on an exterior door frame at a dormitory at the University of Puget Sound. It took him a week to make the pair.

In 1952, he carved two copies of the Tacoma city seal that now are attached high up on the Tacoma Public Library building on Tacoma Avenue.

He has been a repairman as well.

In 1949, an earthquake damaged buildings at the Capitol campus in Olympia. Some of the stone was returned to the company for repair.

After the stones fell from the building, they became Blarney stones of sorts for sightseers.

“The girls would put their initials on (the stones) with lipstick,” Livernash said. “We had to cut that out. You had to take out that much,” he said holding his fingers a quarter-inch apart. “That was the hardest.”

The repair work and soon the industry itself was moribund by 1955.

After the stone carving business went bust, Livernash had a series of jobs and eventually got a degree in education. He taught fourth grade at schools in Carbonado and Buckley for 13 years, retiring in 1987.

“Periodically, I might get called to do a little (stone) work,” he said.

In 1974, Livernash was asked to do stonework on the bell tower of the Gothic-styled Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane. After he finished teaching for the day, he picked up his tools and went to work on the stone.

“I would work four hours a day to keep the mason supplied with stone,” he said.

It wasn’t the only house of worship he’s worked on. He carved Joseph, Mary and Jesus for the Catholic Holy Family church in Seattle.

One of his last jobs was to replicate a destroyed stone finial for a column. A stone carver in Tenino uses Livernash’s tools now.

Born in Tacoma, Livernash grew up in Buckley and never left. A child of the Great Depression, he doesn’t remember any hard times.

Back then, the boys in Buckley liked to play mumblety peg — a game of the era that consisted of throwing a knife into the ground as close as one could get to their own foot. And sometimes in their foot.

He met his first wife, who died in 1996, in grade school. She was two grades behind him.

Livernash’s generation didn’t need to email a résumé or join an online dating service.

“Way back when, I knew everybody,” Livernash said of Buckley. “Not anymore. It’s twice as big.”

Livernash has been a Buckley city councilman. He’s had his knees replaced and a bum ticker worked on. He played softball up until three years ago. He raised a daughter.

His wife, Joyanne, is six years younger than Livernash, who dated her older sister in junior high. Their fathers belonged to the same World War I veterans group.

Does Livernash lament the cost-engineered architecture we live in?

“They’re not as pretty,” is all he offers, accepting the pace of modern life.

What about the fact his work will outlive him and many of the rest of us?

“That doesn’t even interest me,” he said, as he carefully returned his photo collection to its envelope.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor