Retrospect: Selling Alabama stone

The Moretti-Harrah Marble Company's championing of Sylacauga marble

Supreme Court interior in the U.S. Capitol. USCapitol, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the early twentieth century, there was no better promoter of Alabama’s burgeoning marble industry than Giuseppe Moretti. The famed Italian-born sculptor helped establish nearly a dozen companies that quarried, sold and distributed white and blue Sylacauga marble. Although a far better artist than businessman, the most successful company bearing his name lasted seven decades and supplied material for one of the nation’s great architectural treasures.

Giuseppe Moretti with Vulcan model. Courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library.

Trained in sculpture by Italian masters, Moretti first came to Alabama in 1903. He had accepted a commission from the Birmingham Commercial Club to create the monumental statue of Vulcan that would represent Alabama at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. While in Birmingham overseeing the casting of the piece, Moretti learned of the marble beds in nearby Talladega County. At the time, Sylacauga’s marble was principally used in making flux, a product for the refinement of steel.

Extending for more than 30 miles at depths reaching 400 feet, Sylacauga’s marble deposit seemed inexhaustible. Moretti found the product equal in quality to the highly-coveted Italian marble and felt it would be “pleasing for sculpture.” From a dormant quarry, he obtained a sample of the milky white Alabama stone. With only a hammer and chisel, he fashioned a masterpiece, a striking depiction of the head of Christ rendered in high detail. Moretti displayed the sculpture alongside Vulcan at the World’s Fair. His longtime assistant Geneva Mercer noted that Moretti carved the marble Christ “out of the depths of his own heart, in the material he loved and afterwards devoted almost ten years of his life to promoting and developing.” Donated to the state in 1941, Moretti’s first Alabama marble sculpture now resides at the Department of Archives and History in Montgomery.

“Head of Christ” by Giuseppe Moretti, completed in 1904. Courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives and History.

Thoroughly convinced of its superior artistic quality, Moretti touted Alabama marble with an evangelistic zeal. In 1905, he partnered with a businessman to launch his own quarry northeast of Sylacauga. That venture failed within a year because of mounting construction costs and the delayed completion of a necessary stretch of railroad track. Undeterred, Moretti opened another company almost immediately, putting up $3,000 of his own money, but with the same result.

A new opportunity brought Moretti back into the Sylacauga marble business in 1912. Businessman L. E. Brownson wanted to open a new quarry. He turned to Philadelphia financier Charles Jefferson Harrah Jr. for the money and to Giuseppe Moretti for the cachet his name would bring to the endeavor. There is no evidence the famed sculptor contributed any funds when he signed on to the Moretti-Harrah Marble Co., which began with $100,000 in capital (roughly $2.8 million today).

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Marble ready for shipping, Marble Yard, Sylacauga, Alabama. Courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives and History.

At the new quarry, workers hewed large marble blocks from the bed. Hulking derricks loaded the blocks onto awaiting train cars bound for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad line. Although Moretti maintained an art studio overlooking the quarry, the company that bore his name was more of a furnishing site, providing raw material to other companies for the creation of monuments, decorative tile and other uses. This business model made Moretti-Harrah an attractive endeavor. In 1915, the Tompkins-Kiel Marble Co. of New York acquired the company and installed a Wall Street banker as the new president. They retained Brownson as an investor and, in a nod to Moretti, preserved the company’s original name.

By the time of the acquisition, neither Moretti nor Harrah were directly involved in company operations. Far-flung commissions and declining health kept Moretti away from Alabama for years thereafter. After briefly returning in the mid-1920s, the sculptor departed Sylacauga for the final time. He lived out his final years in San Remo, Italy, where he died in 1935.  

During the 1920s, the Moretti-Harrah Marble Co. amassed an impressive list of clients eager to use architectural stone in dozens of buildings in New York, Chicago, Detroit and San Francisco. Business boomed. In the summer of 1927, the company hired an additional 100 workers. In November 1929, less than a month after the stock market crash, the company shipped 60 train cars of marble to West Coast job sites. In December 1931, they supplied 50 carloads of marble for a new bank in Brooklyn.

In 1932, Moretti-Harrah won an important contract to furnish a large amount of rough marble for the new Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. At a cost of $9.4 million, it took an estimated 1,000 carloads of marble from quarries throughout the United States and Europe to complete the building. Industry insiders called it the largest marble project in history. Moretti-Harrah’s contract was to provide solid blocks of white marble for the creation of 36 columns, each of them 22 feet tall, for the building’s vestibule, aptly named the Great Hall. The stone had to be of the highest quality of texture and strength.  

To meet its deadline, Moretti-Harrah constructed three new derricks and employed an army of full-time workers for nearly 14 months. The massive blocks were shipped on open-air train cars to a company in Tennessee for finishing. Announcing the completion of the project, a Montgomery newspaper editor swelled with pride at the endeavor: “There is something inspiring about our resources in Alabama when we realize their possibilities and the many uses to which they can be put to when we get them developed and flowing to the markets and consumers.” One has to imagine that Giuseppe Moretti would have agreed with the assertion.   

Soon after the completion of the Supreme Court project, Tompkins-Kiel sold its Alabama operations to Mississippi’s Columbus Marble Co., a large supplier of monuments and headstones. But the Moretti-Harrah name continued. As the use of Alabama marble in architectural design waned in the 1940s, the company shifted most of its work to the production of pulverized marble called ground calcium carbonate, which was used in a number of commercial products. The company bearing the name of one of Alabama marble’s greatest champions continued on until 1986, when it was absorbed into the operations of English China Clays International. 

Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.

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