Un/common Places

Stonecutters Etch Life Details

T.A. Sullivan and sons Monuments

Once in a while, something along the road begs further investigation. It can be a for-sale sign, a stand laden with fruit or an inviting-looking restaurant. Along Washington Boulevard, in a commercially booming part of Clarendon where buildings are mostly 10 stories high and more, many drivers find that something is a tiny one-story beige house with brown trim, surrounded by hundreds of gravestones, some standing upright, some stacked.
    "I call it my gingerbread house," says Joe Poldiak, owner of T.A. Sullivan and Son, a company that has been carving gravestones since 1885.    His associate and daughter-in-law Mischelle Poldiak adds: "A lot of people come in just because they're curious about who we are."
    What they find is something as unusual and old-timey as the building itself. The office looks like that of a private detective in a film noir -- except for the urns and marble vases in a corner of the main room. Papers are stacked high and often collapse, cigarette smoke snakes through the air, the smell of coffee lingers, and a brown leather desk chair mended with red duct tape sits behind a large mahogany desk.     Also behind the desk is Mr. Poldiak, 67, who favors wearing suspenders over his dress shirt, a thick gold chain around his neck, his hair long, white and wavy.
    "He's definitely a character," says Rob Lingerfelt, 21, who started working with Mr. Poldiak a couple of months ago. "Maybe it's a way to deal with the morbid aspect of the job. He jokes a lot."
    Mr. Poldiak says he didn't get into the stone-carving business because he loved sculpting or carving or had a morbid bent. It just seemed a good way to dig out of poverty.
    "I grew up poor in a mining town in Pennsylvania. Everyone around me was poor, except for the doctors, ministers and undertakers. They had money," Mr. Poldiak says. "So, I thought, I'm not smart enough to be a doctor, and I'm not good enough to be a minister, but I can be an undertaker."
    He moved to the Washington area first to become an embalmer and funeral director. Then he served 18 months in Vietnam. When he came back, he became a gravestone carver. He says the constant and direct dealings with death and grieving families required of a funeral director were taking an emotional toll and he needed a buffer. That buffer became slabs of granite.    Learning to become a monument carver is something one does on the job. Mr. Poldiak learned from older, more experienced carvers, and he's teaching Mr. Lingerfelt and Brian Hood, 25.  
    "What does it take? Well, we're all artists and sculptors here, but you have to be able to lift. And you need patience and a good eye."       A mistake can be costly.      "It can be thousands of dollars," Mr. Poldiak says.
    The basic method of gravestone carving starts with gluing a rubber sheet with perforated letters -- the name of the deceased -- and numbers -- dates of birth and death -- onto the stone, which is cut to size and polished at the quarries.
    "That's where I start people. Just centering the letters," Mr. Poldiak says, standing next to a marker on which Mr. Lingerfelt is centering the rubber sheet. The next step is to remove the rubber letters baring the parts of the stone where the carving is to take place. The rest of the stone remains covered in the rubber sheet, which will protect the stone from indentation while the letters are being sandblasted, the modern form of carving.  
    "You have to be really careful with the angle and the amount of time you spend on each letter," Mr. Hood says. "It's really easy to make a mistake and carve too much."      The inside of P's and A's are particularly difficult, he says.
    "You know why I have a punching bag in the shop?" asks Mr. Poldiak, called "Pappy" by his 10-year-old grandson, Blake. "It's so when someone makes a mistake I have something to hit," he jokes.
    The real reason? Mr. Lingerfelt put it up for after-hour workouts. He also brings his pit bull, Tara, to work sometimes. And Mr. Hood smokes nonstop. This is no corporate office environment. 
     "It's extremely gratifying work," says Mr. Lingerfelt, who fell into the business by chance, answering a vague ad on Craigslist.org asking for someone strong and attentive to detail.  
    For Mr. Poldiak, after more than 30 years of carving, the most gratifying aspects of the job are satisfying the wishes of people who have lost a loved one and undertaking the occasional challenging assignment, such as elaborate hand-etchings done with a Dremel tool. He did a pictorial history for the headstone of a mother and teacher who had grown up on a farm in West Virginia. The etching included farm animals, a schoolhouse and children, covering much of the stone.
    Other times when customers have asked for lots of carved details, he has dissuaded them. This was the case with the late Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Goldberg. Mr. Poldiak tells the story of how he went to Justice Goldberg's house when the jurist was planning his marker to find out what the distinguished man wanted carved on the stone: a list of the -- many -- highlights of his career.      When asked for his feedback, Mr. Poldiak said: "I told him I could do it but thought it would look like a damn billboard. ... His secretary almost fell off her chair. But I always tell it like it is."
    This way of doing business will win some and lose some, he acknowledges. Justice Goldberg still chose Mr. Poldiak's work. However, when a young widow with two toddling children came to him, wanting to spend more than $10,000 on her husband's grave, Mr. Poldiak suggested she might want to talk it over with family and friends, maybe a minister, before making the decision to go the costly route.     "She ended up going to the competition," he says.      Many -- as in thousands -- of Mr. Poldiak's stones are at Arlington Cemetery. Among them are the Shuttle Challenger Memorial and the headstone for Maj. Marie Therese Rossi, who was killed when the helicopter she was piloting crashed on March 1, 1991, during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. 
    The business of death evidently isn't any easier for those who deal with it daily.    Except Mr. Poldiak, who's not planning to leave or sell the gingerbread house on its prime real estate anytime soon -- maybe never. He treats his own demise with a hint of comedy.
    "I'll probably die down here," he says, "but that will work out well. There'll be a stone ready for me," he says and laughs.
This article was written by Gabriella Boston, September 24, 2006, The Washington Times
September 24, 2006.
Copyright © 2006 The Washingon Times LLC. This reprint does not constitute or imply any endorsement or sponsorship of any product, service, company or organization.  Visit our website at http://www.washingtontimes.com.  

Pictured:  Above right: The front of the T.A. Sullivan & Son building on Washington Blvd.
Photo by Chris Williams