Madison company creates notable installations
Quarra Stone has a well-chiseled national profile
On a quiet industrial lot tucked away on Atlas Avenue on Madison’s east side, Quarra Stone Co. is creating and exporting some of the most notable stone-building cladding, monuments and fine art installations in the world. The 29-year-old business annually receives 250 semi loads of marble, granite and other stone from around the globe, which it cuts, machine-carves and handcrafts into 50 projects a year for some seriously big household names. Many can’t be mentioned due to nondisclosure agreements, but those that can will likely ring a bell: Harvard University, West Point Military Academy and the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I just wanted to cut stone,” jokes Quarra president and owner Jim Durham, who sold his first company, Madison Block and Stone, in 1989 and founded Quarra that same year. “But actually, I think that’s the richness of what we do. Stone is a great communicator of ideas and of history.”
One of Quarra’s first big projects was working with Findorff on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Grainger Hall, followed by the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, the Chazen Museum expansion and the 650,000-square-foot U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. When Quarra found red sandstone for the Red Gym restoration in 1997, it got the attention of the East Coast market and triggered a slew of large-scale projects for Harvard, Trinity College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University and other clients from Boston to Washington, D.C. “At various years, we were the largest stone supplier in Boston,” says Durham. “Even now, probably 70 percent of our work is there.”
In addition to cladding and historical restoration (including eight state capitol buildings), a growing portion of Quarra’s projects involve robotic and digital fabrication. Today in the factory, the largest available stone-cutting robot in the world – Quarra has two with a third on the way, each affectionately named after characters from HBO’s Westworld – carves an enormous hunk of white marble to look like trash bags. It will become a Memphis, Tennessee, monument to honor the sanitation workers on strike when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The team is also working on a U.S. Navy war memorial that will be installed in New Zealand (Quarra’s first international project) and an MIT memorial for 26-year-old Sean Collier, the police officer assassinated by the 2013 Boston Marathon bombers. Quarra also produces ornately detailed fine art sculptures, crests and busts, like that of UW-Madison distinguished alumna Kathryn Clarenbach for the new Alumni Park (itself a Quarra project).
“I think that we have the most unique stone fabrication staff in the world, and it’s great that it’s right here in Madison,” says Durham of his 50-member team, comprised of everyone from Carnegie Mellon graduates to an Italy-trained Texan hand-carver with 40 years on the job. Quarra is regularly visited by industry “celebrities” such as Monica Ponce de Leon, one of the leading designers of robotic and CNC fabrication in the world. Also, the company has established a stone fabricating fellowship with faculty from MIT and the University of Michigan that draws four interns each year. “What’s personally satisfying for me is the level of people that are coming to Madison,” says Durham, “because this is now a center for digital fabrication.”
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