Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
For any other teenager, sinking a chisel into the wall of the National Gallery of Art would have been an act of horrific vandalism. For Nicholas Benson, it marked a professional coming of age. "I was only 19, and it was really, really scary," recalls Benson of that day. "There you are on the wall. You cannot make a mistake."
Benson is the third-generation owner of the John Stevens Shop, a stone-carving company that is among the oldest businesses still operating at their original locations. In this case, the location is Newport, Rhode Island, famous for its Gilded Age mansions, historic cemeteries, and tourist-friendly shops. The 310-year-old business--which still bears its founder's name--operates from a green clapboard house in a warren of 18th-century homes so close to the harbor that seagulls wheel overhead. The interior of the John Stevens Shop is all warm wood, cool granite, and shadows. If Benson lit it with gas lamps, no one would question him.
Benson is a man of letters: a calligrapher, who sees words as configurations of shapes and spaces, their beauty aesthetic rather than contextual. His artistry earned him a MacArthur Genius Award in 2010. On this day, he is just back from Mountain View, California, where he gave a talk about the business to Google's design group. The Google folks are "trying to get out of the stream and bring back a broader perspective to the digital realm," says Benson, a trim and youthful 50.
The John Stevens Shop is about as far out of the stream as things get. Sure, Benson and his two employees use computers, and he will whip out a pneumatic hammer for large-scale projects. But for most work Benson paints letters onto stone with a broad-edged brush and carves them with a mallet and chisel.
"This is the way a Roman letter is made," says Benson, dipping a brush beneath a streaming faucet and tracing a "B" on a wooden counter in a few fluid strokes. (The sink embedded in the counter is also made of wood, so that if someone accidentally drops a stone into it, the stone won't break.)
"When people see something that is hand-drawn and hand-carved it makes this subconscious connection," says Benson. "If you put a piece of sandblasted inscriptional work next to a piece of hand-carved inscriptional work, there is no comparison. One is lifeless, and one is full of life."
Just so did Benson's father work and, before that, his grandfather. A cross-country tour of Benson family projects would wind from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park in New York City to the Armand Hammer Museum of Art in Los Angeles, with hundreds of stops in between at schools, public squares, and cemeteries. Benson's own graceful calligraphy adorns such stirring national monuments as the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, in Washington, D.C., and markers of private loss, like the intricately etched gravestones in progress at his workshop.
"If I were going to have someone carve my gravestone it would be the John Stevens Shop. They are the most professional firm in the United States," says Barry Owenby, who, as project executive for the National World War II Memorial, hired Benson to do the inscriptions. More recently, Owenby oversaw construction of a national monument honoring disabled veterans. "The board asked, 'Who do we get to do the lettering?'" says Owenby. "There was only one answer to that question."
Before there were Bensons, there was John Stevens, who started the business in 1705. An immigrant from England, Stevens built foundations and chimneys and also carved headstones: a grim trade made brisk by epidemics of smallpox and other diseases. Local residents bought Stevens's stones; there are hundreds in Newport's Common Burying Ground. Other stones found their way up and down the East Coast on ships. Some traveled as far as Jamaica, source of the rum trade.
In Europe at that time, mechanistic calligraphy was in vogue. People wanted stones carved with typographic letters, in which every letter "a" was identical to every other letter "a.' Free of foreign influence, Stevens and his workers made up their own lettering as they went along, guided by the shapes of their tools. But by the mid-18th century, the European style had swept the colonies; the John Stevens Shop and its competitors followed the fashion. "Some carvers were hired to recarve older stones to look typographic," says Benson. "It was really sad."
By the early 20th century, Stevens's heirs were sandblasting letters onto stones, a technique used then and now by most of the industry. With a largely undifferentiated product, the business was gasping in 1926 when John Howard Benson rented space in the building to carve a stone for a friend's deceased wife. Fresh from studies at the Art Students League in New York, John Howard soon bought the shop, determined to return high craft to the business of stone carving.
"He started looking at the old stones as inspiration," says Nicholas Benson of his grandfather. "But he wasn't interested in making this place a museum, like Colonial Williamsburg." Benson's grandfather was inspired by the revelation--earth-shaking in calligraphic circles--that letters of the Roman alphabet had been formed originally with broad-edged brushes rather than with compasses and straight edges. "My grandfather took up the brush and said, 'I am going to do this type of thing, but I am going to make my own lettering,'" says Benson. That lettering, known in-house as the "Shop Roman," became the company's calling card.
John Howard leveraged his craftsmanship--as well as connections to professional artists and affluent society in Newport and New York City--into high-profile commissions, including inscriptions at Rockefeller Center and on the Iwo Jima Memorial near Arlington Cemetery in northern Virginia. His son John Everett continued the tradition after John Howard's death, in 1956. The younger Benson worked on the FDR memorial, as well as the memorial at the John F. Kennedy gravesite, and numerous art museums and Ivy League universities. He also carved the gravestones for Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, and George Balanchine.
Passing the chisel.
Nicholas Benson apprenticed with his father from age 15. He first proved his proficiency by carving an alphabet stone (what it sounds like) before graduating to headstones for dogs and cats. By his third summer in the shop, Benson was doing larger commercial work. A year later he labored alongside his father on the wall of the National Gallery. "My dad wanted me earning him money. He got me carving pretty darn quickly," says Benson.
Benson left the family business to study design and drawing at the State University of New York at Purchase, and calligraphy and typography in Switzerland. He returned in 1988, and took over the shop from his father in 1993.
Although loyal to the Shop Roman, Benson also invents his own lettering, such as a font he created for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall. Such large civic projects, which Benson executes on-site, keep him away from his home and family for months at a time. Typically he pulls together teams of two or three other carvers, some of whom worked with his father. (His two employees tend the business in Newport.) "We are a small community with more of a guild mentality," says Benson. "These are people I trust implicitly. This is not a situation where you say, 'This guy is sick. I will switch him out with this other guy.'"
Roughly a third of revenue comes from major public works and from institutional commissions, including inscriptions on schools and museums. The rest is from small private jobs, chiefly headstones. The shop produces 20 or 30 a year: each one hand-designed and -carved. Headstones start at $3,500--roughly twice the cost of other monument companies--and "the sky is the limit, depending on how complicated things get," says Benson.
"Nick is such a meticulous craftsman, and it made me so comfortable with what I was going to receive months later," says Sara Chadwick, who last year hired the John Stevens Shop to carve a headstone for her late husband. "It was just exquisite workmanship and beautiful, beautiful design. I am thrilled beyond measure to have gone there.
"People told me I would not be able to tell the difference that it was hand-carved," says Chadwick. "But something inside me knew that I would."
The John Stevens Shop controls the medium. Customers control the message. Benson generally carves what he is told to carve, usually a quotation, benediction, or list of names and dates. He sometimes advises clients on length, advice they may or may not accept.
So, for example, Benson and his team spent weeks carving a quotation from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Drum Major Instinct" sermon into the Stone of Hope, the centerpiece of the King memorial. Benson had urged members of the sponsoring foundation to choose a shorter quote because the one they'd picked would require letters too small for the statue's imposing scale. "They batted it around and finally paraphrased the quote," says Benson. He carved the shorter version. Then, "Maya Angelou saw it and said, 'What the heck is this? Absolutely not!'" says Benson. "And it was removed from the memorial."
Benson also worked on the infamous Hamptons estate of junk bond billionaire Ira Rennert, who was sued by investors for looting one of his companies to buy the property. The sprawling compound includes a replica of the Grand Synagogue of Paris. Benson was hired to carve the Biblical quotation "My house shall be called the house of prayer" in Hebrew above the door. Since the alphabet was unfamiliar, Benson checked with a local rabbi that he had rendered it correctly.
"The rabbi said, 'Yes, this is correct. But where is the rest of this quote?'" says Benson. "I said, 'What is the rest of the quote?'" "He said, 'My house shall be called the house of prayer but ye have made it a den of thieves.' It was too funny."
The MacArthur award, worth $500,000 over five years, has given Benson more freedom to experiment with letters as aesthetic objects, untethered from meaning. Two years ago he served as artist-in-residence at the Yale University Art Gallery, where he was inspired by the paintings of Jackson Pollack, among others, to create a carving of tightly woven, gloriously idiosyncratic letters meant to be experienced as art. (The words, in Latin, are irrelevant: dummy text used by printers.) Yale bought that piece for its collection. He is also applying calligraphy to encrypted computer code, starting with a random assemblage of letters, marks, and numbers that appeared on his screen one day when his machine glitched. "When I saw it I was like, 'Oh, man, that thing is really good looking!'" says Benson.
Benson expects that his commissioned craft, rather than works of personal art, will continue to pay most of the bills. Not that he's anxious to expand the company. With just a handful of competitors, the John Stevens Shop gets plenty of work. And there are no shortcuts. Each job requires personal, painstaking execution, one chisel stroke at a time. "The minute you try to turn this into a growth business you lose all sight of what the product is, what you've devoted years and years to getting good at, " says Benson. "You don't get rich doing it. So unless you really love it and you have a great legacy like this one, why bother?"