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Macadam Surfaces Gain In Popularity
Stones mined from nearby quarries used to create colorful yet subtle driveways

by Donald D. Breed, Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer
Providence Journal Company
November 25, 1993
Section L, p. 1

Drive through one of the fancy new subdivisions and instead of looking at the houses, focus on the driveways. It is amazing - appalling, really - how much of suburbia is paved.

Broad aprons of glistening black asphalt wind through the grounds, as if each home owner planned a personal Grand Prix. The typical expensive house has two ways to get to the front door, a road leading to the garage, plus a place to park and/or shoot baskets.

For the most part, the color choice is the same one Henry Ford gave to buyers of his Model T: You can have any color you want so long as it's black.

Or you can call Larry Torti, whose paving company has revived what he claims is "a lost art" - macadam. Not only is his macadam cheaper than the usual black asphalt, you have a choice of colors: red, blue gray, tan and purple (mauve).

You could also call Julian Peckham, sixth-generation owner of Peckham Bros. Co. Inc. in Middletown, whose company does macadam driveways with the native bluestone out of the family quarry. Many of the Newport mansions have driveways of what the firm calls "penetration," based on old state specifications for macadam that require more materials and cost more.

If you can picture Rosecliff or the Breakers with shiny blacktop, you can see why some home owners are glad to have an alternative. Macadam looks more residential, more country, less like a strip mall. There's a slightly untidy quality that makes it look like a country lane. "I get the gravel effect," says Torti, without the mud in the spring that often comes with a gravel drive.

But if you want to roller-blade in your driveway, macadam is definitely not for you. It has a rough surface, often with loose stones.

The name comes from John Loudon McAdam (1756-1836), a Scot who came to New York City late in the 18th century and returned to Scotland, where he became interested in improving the roads. Later, he moved to Cornwall where he was able to put his theories into practice in the early 19th century.

Macadam as McAdam invented it was a bed of large stones, onto which were was laid small stones, held together by fine sand or slag (cinders). In modern macadam, hot asphalt is sprayed on the large stones to hold the fine stones in place. However, some of Peckham's customers in Newport have what he calls "waterbound" macadam, made with sand instead of asphalt, that sounds a lot like McAdam's formula.

Macadam highways were common in America earlier in this century, and they're still used for secondary roads by some municipalities. But for today's superhighways, the hot mix is better suited. It's smoother, which allows autos and trucks to proceed at high speeds (darting from lane to lane, as some do), and it doesn't take nearly as long to put down.

The hot mix will lighten in color, as it gets pounded by cars and trucks and oxidizes. However, this happens more slowly with driveways, and when it does, people sometimes actually restore the black shiny surface with driveway sealer. Obviously, the gravel look is not for those home owners.

Torti graduated from college in 1971 and founded his paving business that year "with a $110 pickup truck." (He also supported himself with other jobs, including repossessing automobiles, in the early years.)

In 1984, he said, "I saw a need for something different in a driveway application and wondered why no one installed macadam in the area." (He had experimented with the process in 1973, using a subcontractor.) Looking around for the necessary equipment, he said, he found nothing for sale and ended up going out to Colorado and buying a slightly used truck for spraying hot asphalt.

He drove it back as far as Pennsylvania, where the engine burned out, and he had to have it towed the rest of the way to Rhode Island. But he's still using that 1974 International.

Since 1987, Torti has been doing nothing but macadam for his residential jobs. He still does the regular bituminous hot-mix driveway for commercial clients.

One of his residential clients this fall was This Old House, which is restoring a 1907 shingle-tyle Victorian house in Belmont, Mass. The show with Torti will be aired on Channel 36 on Dec. 18 and 21. (Torti said he donated the entire job, after the producers told him they and the home owners liked the driveway, but it might not fit into their budget.)

This Old House producer Bruce Irving said macadam was chosen because "it is roughly in keeping with what would have been put down there back earlier in the century." He reported that 10 days after Torti finished the driveway, it was put to the test by a 30-ton drywall delivery truck. The truck left no impression, Irving said.

Torti's stones are mined in Rhode Island or Massachusetts.

The red stones are crushed ledge from the Attleboro area. He buys them from Tasca Sand & Gravel in Smithfield. The blue-gray stone is from Tilcon Gammino in Cranston, which quarries it there. The purple is from Rowe Trap Rock, a quarry in Saugus, Mass. The tan is native ledge bought from M.M. Prior in Foster.

Torti said some clients say they want no one else in the neighborhood to have the same color, but he can't promise it. At one job, he brought samples in Maxwell House coffee cans that said "custom blended." This led to devising a "custom blend" of different colored stones for that customer.

Peckham says his driveways cost more than blacktop. He said most of his work has been for wealthy people, but "now I do it for most anyone."

Some of the difference in cost may be that Peckham follows the old specifications dating back to when highways were made of macadam. Peckham was interviewed on the site of the future headquarters of the Preservation Society of Newport County, where a landscaped parking lot is being put down where there was an expanse of lawn. He said he first laid down an 8-to-12-inch base of crushed bank gravel or reprocessed concrete.

Then the specs call for a 3-inch base of 1 1/2 - to 2 1/2 -inch bluestones - Peckham substitutes 3/4 -to 1 1/2 -inch bluestones - followed by liquid asphalt applied at 1 1/2 gallons per square yard (hence the "penetration"), then 3/8 -inch stone chip at the rate of 30 pounds per square yard. It's then rolled, and more liquid asphalt, 1/2 gallon per square yard, applied, followed by a coat of 3/8 -inch stone. Then it's rolled again.

Torti puts down a 3-inch base of 3/4 -inch stone, then sprays it with liquid asphalt (AC-20) at a rate of 1 gallon per square yard, then puts on a topping of 3/8 -inch stones and rolls it. He says that he doesn't usually have to put down an 8-to-12-inch base of gravel because most of his work is with existing driveways that started out as gravel. But if he's starting out with raw land, he also puts down the base.

"My driveways last just as long (as Peckham's)," Torti insists, adding that the biggest single expense is the preparation, which both have to do. Initially, he said, "I marketed this for people in the country with long driveways who couldn't afford blacktop and didn't want gravel." Then landscape architects and others began to specify it for its appearance as well as cost savings.

Torti says there's more to be said for macadam as opposed to blacktop. In the winter, he said, the smooth, shiny blacktop can get glare ice, and he's had people on hills say they couldn't get their cars up to the garage. This doesn't happen with the rougher surface of macadam.

As for longevity, Torti recommends re-oiling after five to seven years, "at a fraction of the cost of a new driveway, and then it will last another 10 years." By contrast, a blacktop driveway would probably last 10 years, but then would probably have to be torn up and replaced, he said. Concrete, the most expensive driveway, is fine until it cracks; then it can't be fixed, Torti said.

In Newport, Peckham showed a number of previous jobs, including Chateau sur Mer and the old Firestone estate, that he said were 20 years old. Rain and snowplows had apparently taken away all loose stones, but the pavement was strong, uncracked and unrutted.

Of course, conditions vary and one driveway lasts longer than another. Torti tells about an elderly gent who called him in distress about his gravel driveway. "It was fine for 25 years," he lamented. "I don't know what happened this year."

The reason his macadam looks somewhat like gravel is that Torti puts plenty of stones on the top, to make sure all the asphalt is covered - "some of these people have white rugs and marble floors; we have to be careful" - and some of the stones then become loosened.

 



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