Leaverites as Art—The Retaining Walls of Jerome AZ

Fifteen hundred retaining walls and fifteen hundred feet of elevation separate the house known as the Eagle’s Nest at the entrance into Jerome AZ from Prescott to its lowest residences—a couple of twisty miles as you follow the highway through town. They are Jerome’s most impressive, and sadly, most overlooked, architectural treasures. Many are works of art.  Most are built of leaverites.

Paul Nonnast's studio and foundry in Jerome AZ.

Built into the hillside, artist Paul Nonnast described his hand-built home in Jerome AZ as a ‘perforated cave’—a compact L-shaped building of three rooms: kitchen, bedroom, drafting/fabrication room. The interior rooms open onto a stone terrace with round, cold pool and serve as an extension of the home’s internal spaces. Inside and out, graceful sweeping curves, flat planes, numerous levels, angles, delicate patterning and tight joints identify Nonnast as a gifted stonemason. A new home was built in the nineteen nineties and the entire property is for sale. It is being presented by Denise Lerette of Russ Lyon Sotheby’s International Realty, Sedona, AZ.  (Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s)

Retaining walls knit the town together and keep it from pitching down the steep mountain. They edge highways and driveways. In some parts of town, retaining walls keep homes from toppling into those of their neighbors. Many foundations and building walls are made of native rock, such as the pillars of the old Bartlett Hotel, the only ruin remaining on Main Street. Woven into these walls are the hearts of the people who built and repaired them, binding them to one another, bridging generations and ethnicities.

Retaining walls and steps facing Main Street, Jerome AZ.

So many residents and visitors hang out on the steps facing Main Street in Jerome AZ and never notice how beautifully built these steps and walls are. Photo by Bob Swanson www.Swansonimages.com)

“I became a wall builder out of necessity,” said Jerome resident Jane Moore.  “The day I signed the papers from the woman who sold me the house was the day I was underneath the house cleaning some of her stuff out and the rock wall under there completely fell over! There were SO many old walls all over this property in various states of disrepair, that it seems it’s a never ending project! But never mind… it’s a job I enjoy, as long as my back holds out!”

Jane Moore builds graceful retaining walls on her property in Jerome,AZ

The hand-stacked retaining walls in the corral barn on my Jerome Az property are ones I did by myself. Photo by Jane Moore

Many generations of residents can echo Jane’s words. Many retaining walls are hand-stacked, one stone over two, much like those built by the ancient Anasazi. Most have no mortar between them. Properly built, the walls “weep” and act as natural drains. They have an elasticity that enables them to gracefully shift and settle.

Retaining wall on HOlly Street in Jerome AZ

Mixed media retaining wall on Holly Street, JeromeAZ—rock, railroad ties and steel sheets. Photo by Bob Swanson, www.Swansonimages.com

In 1976, a small earthquake shook glasses in Paul and Jerry’s Saloon. Another small one occurred in 1984, just five miles outside of town. I was standing outside my old Verde Street house looking at the first wall we repaired. The earthquake sounded like an underground train ambling through the town’s underbelly. A few rocks tumbled, but the large walls held.

Dolomite highway retaining wall, Jerome AZ

One of the first Jerome AZ walls that drivers notice on their way up from the Verde Valley is right on Highway 89A. It was built by Mexicans and Italian stonemasons in the 1930’s as a WPA project. The limestone rocks are quarried from the Martin formation just outside of town. The rocks have settled and withstood a few rumbles, which accounts for some of their curved lines. Photo by Bob Swanson (www.SwansonImages.com)

The stone for Jerome’s walls can be found within a seven-mile radius of town, many from the same colorful formations that are dominant in the Grand Canyon—1.8 billion-year old copper colored schist (Cleopatra formation), maroon Tapeats sandstone, grey Martin dolomite (A type of limestone), cherry-streaked Redwall sandstone, ruby-colored Supai sandstone and black lava basalt. The rocks tell of the ancient seas that once covered the area and the tumult of ancient volcanoes and earthquakes.

Cobblestone street in Jerome AZ.

A few cobblestone and limestone block streets still exist in Jerome. I call them horizontal walls. This one is on Second Street. Photo by Bob Swanson (www. Swansonimages.com

Then there are walls built of coarse caliche (the white cement like calcium carbonate), which are found on the Dundee hogback and make digging there a nightmare. Not all Jerome’s walls are made of rock. Concrete walls flank the old Mingus High School and a large highway wall flanking the road that does up to The Surgeon’s House Bed and Breakfast and the Grand Hotel. Parts of the large wall on Holly Street is built of giant steel sheets that were used to form up the shaft that goes 4200 feet into the mountain. Other walls are built with railroad ties and old telephone poles. Some of my favorites use bedsprings and old car engine blocks, woodstove doors, corrugated tin, pipes, 25-gallon laundry buckets, and discarded refrigerators filled with stones anddiscarded tires. Old timers knew the term recycling long before it became fashionable.

This retaining walls in Jerome AZ is made of laundry buckets filled with rocks.s filled with rocks.

Retaining all of tires and laundry buckets in Jerome AZ. Photo by Bob Swanson (www. SwansonImages.com)

Virtually all Jerome’s residents have put their hands to fixing and uilding walls. These walls have a lotto say about the resourcefulness, stubbornness, tenacity, aesthetics and even quirky natures of their builders. My hats off to them—the great leaverite artists of Jerome AZ.

Hull Canyon retaining wall in Jerome aZ.

Very near the mining road that led to the entrance of the old Hull Mine, a quarter mile from Jerome AZ, is this spectacular inverted hand-stacked wall made up of small rocks from the canyon schists that are 1.8 billion years old, almost a third the age of the planet earth.(Photo by Bob Swanson (www.SwansonImages.com)


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