Oakland building stones: Granite variations

29 August 2016

granite-wilsonbldg

Oakland’s buildings embody history and geology in the different types of stone that compose their facades. So how about granite?

California began producing granite soon after statehood, in a stonecutting district near Sacramento where rail and barge transport was handy.

At the time Oakland’s third City Hall was being designed, around 1910, many large quarries in the Sierra were supplying the market, and the architects chose “Sierra White” stone from a quarry near Madera, probably the McGilvray Quarry. The same district still produces Sierra White granite for the great Coldspring empire.

granite-cityhall

This fine-grained granite is excellent for carving and for resisting the attacks of urban pollution. Its neutral color works well with the building’s superb ceramic tiles and marble. Many of San Francisco’s notable buildings (the St. Francis Hotel, Bank of California and Old Custom House among them) also use Sierra White.

Buildings of later vintage take advantage of stone from more distant sources. The Lake Merritt Tower building at 155 Grand Avenue, built in 1990, features a splendid granite with extremely coarse grains, not typical of California. The granite benches around the building use the same stone in a polished finish that displays it especially well.

granite-bench

The building itself employs the same granite with a flamed or thermal finish. It’s produced by running stone slabs through a set of gas-fired torches. The sudden thermal expansion shatters the minerals and, properly controlled, yields this rugged surface.

granite-lakemerritt-tower

The Caltrans building next door, formally named the Nicholas C. Petris State Building and finished in 1992, is faced with a pink granite from Texas in both polished and sandblasted finishes. Here’s a closeup.

granite-caltrans

What are we looking at here? Time for the geology part. First of all, to stone dealers “granite” means only one thing — a coarse-grained rock (1) hard enough to take a good polish and (2) not marble, serpentine or quartzite — but that thing is a very broad one. Stonecutters came centuries before geologists, and what they say goes.

Geologists don’t call every granite building granite. “Black granite,” for instance, is gabbro. Scrupulous geologists would call all the stones in this post “granitoid,” meaning one of a broad set of coarse-grained rocks made of feldspar and quartz in various proportions. Real petrological granite has a narrower set of proportions. None of these stones has the 20 percent quartz that would qualify it as true granite. I know you’re disappointed. But the feldspar makes a great building stone.

In the picture above, quartz is the clear stuff that looks gray. Feldspar comes in two main types. The white grains are plagioclase feldspar, and the pink ones are alkali feldspar. (A pink color is unusual; it ranges from white to buff to red.) The black grains are typically hornblende, biotite (black mica) or both.

The gorgeous Texas Pink granite of the Lake Merritt Plaza complex, at 20th and Harrison streets, shows these minerals more vividly.

granite-lakemerritt-plaza

I do think this is Oakland’s most beautiful building stone. Texas Pink is a brand (not the kind you burn on steers), also from the Coldspring empire. It’s quarried from Granite Mountain, about an hour out of Austin and near the amazing dome of pink granite preserved in Enchanted Rock State Natural Area.

Texas Pink granite was also used, a bit more adventurously, in the AC Transit headquarters building at 1600 Franklin Street.

granite-actransit

I don’t know in what year the building was constructed, but I have the impression that Oakland architects are finished with Texas Pink granite for the moment. Metal and glass is the default exterior of today’s large urban buildings. In their lavish lobbies and interiors, though, stone is still the right stuff.

The Merritt Sand

22 August 2016

merritt-terrace-madison

Downtown Oakland sits on an unusual bit of geology — a large dune field mapped as the Merritt Sand. San Francisco is famous for its sand dunes, of course, and Points Reyes and Año Nuevo have some too, but the dune fields of Oakland and Alameda are the only ones within the bay. Here they are, labeled “Qds” on USGS Map OF-00-444, which shows the young (Quaternary) deposits of the Bay area.

dunesandmap

They’re just like the dunes in San Francisco. They formed during the ice ages, when the shoreline was out near the Farallon Islands, the Bay was totally dry and the Sierra was full of permanent glaciers (on not quite the same schedule as the great continental ice caps). The rivers carried huge amounts of fresh-ground rock dust from the glaciers to the Bay and beyond, and the Pacific beaches of the time must have been formidable. Think of the brisk summer days we have when the sea wind is being sucked into the Central Valley, and now multiply that. Those winds blew all that sand here.

Brian Atwater of the U.S. Geological Survey mapped ice-age deposits in the Delta, and in 1982 he summarized the overall picture as “a stage on which three related and repetitious plays are presented simultaneously. In one play, wetlands and flood plains appear and expand as tidwater invades from the west, then become sites of erosion after the tidewater retreats. In another play, glacially eroded detritus from the Sierra Nevada builds alluvial fans and, reworked by wind, creates extensive sand dunes. In the third, little-understood play, streams draining the Sierra Nevada foothills and Coast Ranges episodically build alluvial fans. Spanish- and English-speaking persons enter during a major incursion of tidewater and find most of the stage covered with tules.”

Our dunes may sit higher than the buried dunes of the Delta because the conditions that built them were more stable here. There was always a wind gap at the Golden Gate and always lots of sand available on the other side.

In detail, the Merritt Sand (Qms) reaches the edge of Lake Merritt.

merritt-lake-geomap

It differs from the marine terrace deposits (Qmt) that I’ve described before. It consists of very fine sand, with no clay. It’s also higher and less flat. Apparently the original, undisturbed surface featured yardangs — elongated ridges of sand running in the direction of the wind — whereas the dunes of Alameda were the more typical arc shapes known as barchans. All of that is obliterated today.

You can see the edge of the Merritt Sand platform from across the lake where the streets rise abruptly away from the shore. Snow Park is probably the least disturbed exposure.

merritt-terrace-snowpark

Another exposure stands out between Jackson and Madison streets, although it probably has also been excavated.

Merritt terrace at 160-17th St

It’s the back yard of an apartment building at 160 17th Street. The view is nice from there.

merritt-terrace-view

That same agreeable elevation attracted Oakland’s early elite, who put up a row of mansions overlooking the lake. Of those great homes, only the Camron-Stanford House survives.

Oakland geology ramble 2, Rockridge to Orinda

15 August 2016

The second geology ramble — my name for a long walk that starts in one place and ends in another — is a long and rugged one, just to show you I’m not kidding about these. From the Rockridge BART station to the Orinda BART station is a walk of more than 9 miles with a thousand-foot climb in the middle.

There are several ways to do this. This summer I’ve pioneered what I’ll call the middle route on two separate outings. Here they are, first on Google Maps and then on the geologic map (both images are 1000 pixels). The photos are a mixture from both traverses.

ramble2topo

ramble2geo

From the Rockridge station, the route along the south side of Route 24 is more direct while the alternative, up Chabot Road to Roanoke Road to The Uplands to Tunnel Road (dashing across Tunnel to the uphill side), takes you through more shade and past more rocks, starting on Roanoke.

ramble2-1

The mixed lithologies of Franciscan melange (KJfm) give way to rugged outcrops of the Leona rhyolite (pink color) as you cross Vicente Creek on Tunnel Road. Admire them at the century-old estate called The Rocks. Beyond the Fire Garden is a short stretch without sidewalks that passes a long, excellent exposure of Leona Rhyolite. This was quarried in the 1930s and again in the 1950s during construction of upper Broadway, the Caldecott Tunnel and Route 24.

ramble2-2

The rocks change to mudstone of the Great Valley Sequence (Ku), then the much younger Sobrante Formation (tan color), as you ascend Tunnel Road’s steady, gentle grade.

ramble2-3

The change to the Claremont chert is dramatic as you near the ridgetop and enter Sibley Preserve.

ramble2-4

Cross the park on the Round Top Loop trail, which goes through the coarse-grained sedimentary rocks of the Orinda Formation (Tor), although you won’t see much of them. Take the Volcanic Trail left, which leads into the structurally overlying basalt of the Moraga Formation (Tmb). The quarry that carved up these golden hilltops extracted that basalt. In 0.2 miles, at the right edge of this photo, is a road with a cattle gate that exits the park.

ramble2-5

The views change dramatically on the east side of the hills, whether you’re looking to the left up Siesta Valley . . .

ramble2-6

. . . or to the right toward Mount Diablo.

ramble2-7

Straight ahead lies the unbuilt Wilder Ranch subdivision of Orinda. The valley it sits in is the continuation of Siesta Valley, and it’s underlain by nonmarine sedimentary rocks of the Siesta Formation.

ramble2-8

Both valleys owe their shape to the large fold, or syncline (“sloping together”), in the Siesta Formation that’s noted on the geologic map. The Moraga Formation basalt is also downfolded by this syncline, and it crops out again in the hill with the quarry scar.

This subdivision looks bleak, but the developers are doing the job right. The lots are gray because they’re sealed with some tough, pliant substance that prevents all dust and weeds. And as you cross, the route takes the dirt road running from the intersection of Wilder and Bigleaf Roads to the big bend in Rabble Road. You’ll pass several vegetated catch basins designed to hold the extra runoff from the new properties.

ramble2-9

This is another example of the flood-control practices I mentioned last week.

The route goes from Rabble Road to Boeger Ranch Road, but take the straight spur between them and follow it to the end, where a footpath connects with the end of Oak Road. All of this area is mapped as mudstone of the Mulholland Formation, of which I know nothing beyond its (young) age, Miocene and Pliocene. From Oak, take Stein Way down to busy-busy Moraga Way and from there head to the BART station. Sidestep as much of Moraga Way as possible by taking Camino Encinas.

If time permits, stop for a beer at The Fourth Bore in Theatre Square. If you take this ramble the other way, stop for a beer at Ben & Nick’s. Either way, you’ve earned it.

The first time I made this trek, many years ago, I took the northern route: up Claremont Canyon, north on the Skyline Trail, then down through the Lomas Cantadas maze to Camino Pablo. That was work. I’ve hiked up the canyon on Claremont Avenue several times, but the traffic is nerve-racking. The alternatives, through the Hiller Highlands or Grandview neighborhoods, are steep, sunny trudges. On the Orinda side it would be more fun to descend through the East Bay MUD land from the Skyline Trail (for which you need a hiking permit). I plan to attempt the northern route again when the weather cools. I have a vague scheme for a southern route, too.

See ramble 1 here.