The Lopez stone diaries

How I built a patio and rediscovered

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By ANTHONY GARGIULO, JR.

On a typical spring Sunday in 1997, clean-up was in full gear on my Oak Park block. Neighbors were raking lawns, pushed brooms across driveways, shoveling, troweling, pruning. A lawn mower whirred in the distance. Stuffed yard-waste bags, bundled twigs and brush, and the occasional odd relic piled up on the parkway.

Something on the parkway several doors down caught my eye. There were stacks of colored stonesā€"squares and rectangles, big and small. They seemed like the stones in the walkways and patios of the Oak Park and River Forest homes where I grew up. I also remembered them from patios of relatives who lived in Berwyn.

I walked the short distance down the sidewalk and inspected the stones. Most appeared to be in good shape, though a few had worn spots beneath the surface. My instinct was to take them. Not because I'm a landscape fanatic and just had to build the perfect patio or walkway. My connection to these treasures, known commercially as Lopez Stone, was personal. They were the legacy of my great uncle, Salvatore "Sal" Lopez.

Romancing the stones

Sal was born in the Calabria region of Italy in 1898. He developed his craft as a stonemason. Like many Italians in the 1900s, he departed for better opportunity and immigrated to Argentina in the 1920s. He returned briefly to Italy, departed again for Argentina, stayed for a short period of time, and then made it to the United States (by way of Puerto Rico) in 1934. His sister Filomena (my maternal grandmother) had been settled here for several decades by then, raising a family of six children in Berwyn. Like most Italians who left the homeland, Sal settled near his sister's family.

He had little trouble finding work as a mason and was employed by various contractors in the Chicago area. As he became more familiar with his new country he branched off on his own, working with a partner who did woodwork. Sal exhibited a creative side as he developed a penchant for working color into the stone facades he built (including the old Melody Mill Ballroom in North Riverside and the Old Prague Restaurant in Cicero).

Later, Sal took this color concept a step further and developed a process for making what would become Lopez Stone. Mixing color with cement wasn't novel. But mixing it directly into the cement caused the color to fade within a few years. Sal's process separated the color from the cement so that over time the color would hold.

According to Sal's daughter, Barbara Lopez Scherman, Lopez Stone was made "first with a mold set with a layer of wax paper at the bottom. Second, one-fourth of an inch of cement coloring was added. Then, after the coloring set, regular cement was poured in as the next layer and wire mesh was inserted to reinforce the stone. When the stone was cured, the wax paper was removed, which gave the stone a natural appearance," with colors that blended well in most landscapes.

Installing a patio of stones involved following specified patterns that took into account the number and sizes of the stones. Lopez Stones were laid on a layer of sand which was also used to fill in the spaces between them. According to Scherman, the stones were laid in sand to "accommodate Chicago's cold winters. The ground would rise and fall and the stone would rise and fall with it."

Old stones make a new patio

It was incredible to me that someone would throw these stones out. I rang the doorbell just to be sure they really intended to do so. There was no answer. Another neighbor who lived next door to the "stone trasher" told me I should just go ahead and take them. He was going to seize some himself.

Returning to the parkway with a wheelbarrow, I began slowly and carefully loading the stones. Many weighed more than 50 pounds each. I made numerous trips back and fourth to my yard, but didn't count how many stones I ultimately rescued. The flat tire of the wheelbarrow attested to the fact that it was more than a few.

A week or so later, the Lopez Stones remained stacked against our big maple tree. Now that I'd addressed sentiment by taking possession of them, I had to get practical. It appeared to me that: one, I might not have enough stones to build a decent size patio, and two, I might not have enough knowledge to do it. I called my cousin George Lopez, Sal's youngest son, for insight and assistance.

In addition to some pointers on building the patio, George shared some original 1960s Lopez Stone sales brochures that described the stone and how to install it, and showed a sample plot. George also offered up about a dozen or so Lopez Stones he'd kept in his garage. They were in pristine condition and would enable me to build a respectable patio.

I thought a good spot would be a neglected and low-lying section of our yard under a chestnut tree. It would cover the section of weedy grass in an L shape. In total, I had 55 stones, in 13 different sizes and shapes.

My intent was to pull them together in a neat, even configuration, sort of like doing a puzzle of squares and rectangles. But I panicked when confronted with the geometric reality. My late mother (Sal's niece and a practicing dentist) was encouraged that I was attempting construction with the Lopez Stone. She suggested a patient of hers who could help: Mark Thompson, an Oak Park middle school math teacher.

I contacted Thompson, and after sharing the number of stones, their sizes and the number of each size, he gave me the area we could work with in square feet. To do the L shape, he suggested one area of 96 square feet adjacent to another of 64 square feet. We could fill that using 49 of the 55 stones. He drew on graph paper the specific size stones and where they would fit in the plot.

I still needed someone to help me lay the sand down and put the stones in place. I enlisted my mechanically-inclined brother Mark. He joined me on a Sunday in July that, of course, turned out to be the hottest of the summer.

The day before we started, we had a local cement supplier deliver a yard of Torpedo sand and a small load of crushed limestone. Mark and I evened out the patio area and added a layer of the limestone. Then, section-by-section, we added the sand evenly and fit the stones in, one-by-one. It was physical, painstaking work. We couldn't just plop a stone down on a patch of sand and move to the next one. To keep the stones level with each other, one of us often had to lift a stone while the other released enough sand from a bucket to make the proper adjustment.

It took us the entire day to complete the patio. It took a few more days for the soreness in my body to wear off. It was replaced with pride and joy. My wife Kathryn was truly amazed that we'd pulled it off. And I hoped somewhere my Uncle Sal felt pleasure that his great nephew made good use of his treasured creations.

A family business

My Uncle Sal built a business around his invention. Initially his idea was to have a factory that made the stones. But in 1946, the city of Berwyn required that a business have a storefront in order to operate. To comply, Sal decided to have a retail operation selling patio furniture as a complement to his stone business. He recruited two of his brothers-in-law, Al and Ed Pappalardo, to help run each of the businesses.

According to Scherman, the first year or two were tough financially. The stone had to be made all winter in order to be ready for sale in the summer, but no revenue came in until the stone was sold or a patio installed. And because Sal was short on assets, banks were unwilling to loan him much to get started.

"Most people thought my dad was crazy," said Scherman. "They thought that Chicago had too short of an outdoor season for people to invest in patios."

But after those unforgiving initial years, Lopez Stone Products grew successfully. Sal developed a dual distribution model: sell the stones through Chicago area nurseries such as Amlings, and sell the stone and installation services directly to homeowners. The second proved much more profitable.

Business also was helped by the post-World War II home building boom. The patio furniture business did very well and eventually added Christmas decorations to its line. The Christmas business would later be handled by Sal's daughter, Nancy.

Just as the business was hitting its stride, Sal was diagnosed with cancer and died shortly after, in 1957. While his wife Louise and four children grieved, the family decided to carry on with Louise's brothers, Al and Frank, in charge. Coincidentally, shortly before Sal's death, he'd recruited and trained a nephew from Italy, Frank Foglia, to act as his eventual successor.

The Lopez Stone enterprise continued to thrive through the 1960s under the direction of Al and Frank. However, near the end of the decade, Al was suffering from poor health and Frank was intent on returning to his family in Italy. With difficultly finding, training and keeping skilled workmen for a seasonal concern and with the realization that the stone business required a dedicated manager, Louise and her family decided to sell Lopez Stone Products and its patent.

"My Dad was the backbone of the business," George told me. It was too hard to find someone to replace him.

Rockwell Lime Company (a Wisconsin building materials firm with roots in Chicago as Brisch Brick Company) bought Lopez Stone but stopped making it around 1970. According to Joe Brisch, executive vice president, making the stone "was not profitable for us, was labor intensive and was not a core brick business at the time." He seemed to confirm what Sal had discovered when his business was in its nascent stageā€"that the viability of the Lopez Stone went beyond making and selling. It required actually plotting and installing the patios.

After the sale of Lopez Stone, the remaining business became Lopez Patio Furniture, run by George, Nancy and brother John. The business remained on Ogden Avenue in Berwyn. The family eventually sold it to a larger local Chicago outdoor retailer in 1995.

As a youngster I remember my mother pointing to the colorful Lopez Stone wherever we encountered it, always adding a proud, "Your uncle made this." I didn't pay much attention.

But sometimes we remember things, even by accident. I'm grateful that my neighbor's garbage was all it took to spark my memory and set me in motion. I now understand my family's pride and marvel at Salvador Lopez's wonderful stone creations that sit proudly in the backyards of many Chicago-area homes.

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