Since the Getty Center opened in 1997, its gift shop has been selling little cubes of travertine, the stone used to build the Getty, from the exact same Italian quarry from which all original building materials were sourced. During the building's construction process, more than 108,000 square meters of this stone were cut from a quarry wall, then shipped over from Italy, but not all the stone was used. Hence the perfect chance for what retailers call upcycling: taking a waste project and turning it into a desirable new commodity.
"I wouldn't say that all of our 1.2 million visitors buy one [of the Getty stones]," says Thomas Stewart, the Getty's head of merchandising. "But it's certainly a very popular souvenir."
In 2012, when Stewart took over the Getty's quite extensive merchandise department — the museum stocks pop-up stores for almost every exhibition — he realized the travertine was not going to last forever. "We had supply for a year or two left," he says. He wasn't quite sure how to address this problem. "We realized it may leave some void — and it was an unusual situation."
If they found new travertine to replace the old supply, of course, "The story would be changing," Stewart says. Even if the museum returned to Italy to acquire replacements, the new stone would no longer be the same stone used to build the center. Would people still want it?
The Getty came to be travertine-covered largely because of an entrepreneurial Italian. By 1990, architect Richard Meier was six years into his attempt to design, let alone build, the Getty Museum to the satisfaction of all cantankerous stakeholders. The Brentwood Homeowners Association was among the most demanding obstacles, objecting to almost every shade or texture of metal cladding Meier proposed before he'd even briefed them on potential stone, which is what would mostly cover the building.
Meier had accumulated at least 2,000 stone samples from quarries around the world by the time an Italian named Carlo Mariotti showed up in Meier's L.A. office. Mariotti owned a quarry in Bagni di Tivoli, just north of Rome, and specialized in travertine marble. The Coliseum in Rome was built with stone from approximately the same place his quarry now was.
Meier responded skeptically at first. In the United States, most architects used travertine to make smooth veneers. "The only way it would interest me," he told Mariotti, "is if we could use it in a very rough form, much as it was used in ancient times."
So Mariotti, who very much wanted to be in business with the Getty, came up with a plan. They could roll the slabs of stone down a conveyor belt, then split them with what was essentially a rock-cutting guillotine. Then the rough, sandy interior, and sometimes even fossils, would be exposed. The Brentwood homeowners had, to Meier's great surprise, no objections (though the trustees, worried about cost, did wonder if maybe stucco could be used instead).
By the time the museum complex was ready to open, the "Roman classic" travertine surface of its buildings had become a big part of the Getty's mystique. Conservator Eric Doehne wrote in the Getty Center's November 1996 newsletter about the "diamond-studded cable" used to pull the travertine from the quarry wall and the impression of an "unusual bone" in one travertine block on the building — at that point, paleontologists from the Page Musuem were working to identify the bone.
So it was not really a surprise that the little stones, sold for under $10 a piece, became a commercial success for the museum.
The leftover stone, which had been cut into 2-by-2-inch cubes, officially ran out early in April of this year. By that point, Stewart and his team had been weighing their options. It was, of course, possible to not replace the stone at all. "I've got a whole shelf of many things we have not renewed," Stewart says. He went ahead with initial research, pricing stone in Italy, and quickly realized that the cost of shipping small pieces would be unjustifiably steep. And that didn't even include the cost of splitting the stone by some method that, even if it wasn't a conveyor-belt guillotine, rendered the same result.
But the stone industry has changed significantly since the 1980s and '90s, when the Getty was designed and then built and when Italy practically had a monopoly on the travertine market. Most U.S. buildings that used it, including the Wells Towers in New York, sourced the stone from Europe. Around 1990, however, travertine quarries in Mexico started opening up. Called "Durango," the Mexican travertine is significantly more accessible. Its coloring is slightly different from the Italian variety. "You could probably not tell the difference, unless you're in the industry," Stewart says.
He found Durango travertine by becoming as familiar as he could with the industry, visiting different stone providers around the city. One place, longtime Santa Monica company Bourget Bros., sources travertine from a Mexican quarry near the Arizona border, which meant acquiring new travertine blocks probably would be economical.
Bourget Bros. is doing quite well currently. With the state giving homeowners rebates for "drought-proofing" their yards, landscapes that rely more on stone than greenery are having an unprecedented heyday. The company's showrooms are almost always crawling with contractors and landscapers, and Stewart wasn't entirely sure Bourget Bros. would want to take on a project like his, which involved providing small amounts of stone for a gift shop. But the company is interested, and, while no official contract has been signed, Bourget Bros. likely will be working with the museum.
Initially, Stewart and the merchandising team had planned to have new stones in the gift shop by June but, unsurprisingly, the process has been more complicated than expected. The new Getty stones will, ideally, be cubes of 3 by 3 inches instead of the previous 2-by-2, because it was easier to cut them that size.
It has taken the past few months to find a satisfactory approach to the splitting and trimming of the travertine — the stones need to be rough in just the right way, to have that "Getty" look. They also were waiting on final estimates to make sure they can keep the stones, now set to arrive in the store this month, under $10.
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The stones will have stickers on them with the Getty's logo, though Stewart would prefer at some point to engrave the logo or to embed little plaques into the stones. As before, they'll be sold along with information sheets, explaining the significance of the travertine in the museum building process and giving a glimpse into the geological context. But a line or two will have to be added, clarifying that the stone does not come from the same quarry as the stone on the Getty's facade, that it does not come from Italy at all.
The first shipment to the gift shop will probably be small, maybe 100 stones. It's still not certain that Getty-goers will buy them, or whether they'll be intrigued, put off or nonplussed by the shift in the product's origins.
"We'll see how the visitors respond as the story changes," Stewart says.