Fontana: a Name Carved in Granite
San Francisco Examiner 02/23/83
by John Flinn
COLMA -- Elio Fontana proudly slapped a cold slab of granite that had begun the metamorphosis from rock to ornate headstone.
"I can always pick out ourmonuments when I go to a cemetery," he said. "It has our family's style and workmanship."
Generations of Fontana's family have been carving granite longer than he can determine. Church records show the family was in the business as far back as 1800, when they moved to Sant'Andre, Italy.
"One of the guys who built St. Peters was named Fontana," said Elio, 64. "Wouldn't that be something if...?"
After so many generations, it seemed inevitable that Elio's son, Mark, would follow in the footsteps of his father, his grandfather and his great-great grandfather. Instead, he became a cop.
"I wanted to go out and see if I could make it on my own in another field," said Mark, 30. "Being a cop was a good thing to do. It made me feel like I was giving service to the community."
Mark spent five years as an officer with the Colma police department. But as his father approached retirement age, he quit the force and went to work for the family business. "I realized my father was going to be getting out of it pretty soon," Mark said. "Either I would take it over or he would sell it. I don't have any brothers, just one sister."
Looking back, realizes that stonecutting is in his genes. "I guess I always knew that someday this business would be mine, but it was important to me to see if I could do something on my own," he said.
This month Elio retired and Mark took over operation of the family business, V. Fontana and Co.
The business was founded nearly 70 years ago in Colma by Elio's father, Valerio, who emigrated to San Francisco from Italy.
Valerio Fontana put the family talent to use carving the granite for San Francisco's Hall of Justice, the library and scores of other downtown buildings.
In order to be closer to his market, he built shop to carve headstones and tombs in Colma, where the buried residents outnumber the living 2,000 to one.
Stone-cutting has changed dramatically--for the better--since Valerio's days, said Mark. He gives much of the credit for this to his father.
Until 20 years ago, stones were cut mostly by hand, but Elio brought the craft into the 20th century with the introduction of cutting machines.
The granite still arrives in 10-ton blocks from the Sierra, Texas, Minnesota and Norway, but it's cut withdiamond-bladed saws that can trace a pattern to perfection.
Stone-cutting machines can do in half an hour what it once took someone working by hand to do in five hours, Mark said.
Other machines use water, chemicals and heat to put a polish on the stone that will never fade. Lettering and other artwork is usually sand-blasted into the granite.
Thanks in part to Elio, the business is also much safer than in his father's
day. Elio helped introduce dust collectors that have virtually eliminated silicosis, a lung disease that was to stone-cutters what black-lung disease is to coal miners.
During his early days in the business, Elio remembers cutters wearing damp sponges in their noses to keep the silicon dust out. In most cases, though, it didn't work.
"When you became a stone-cutter, you knew you were going to die of silicosis," Elio said. "It was a foregone conclusion. You expected it."
His father, he said, died of a silicosis-induced heart attack.
"I'll wager you that every single worker who carved the granite for the old City of Paris building died of it," he said. "It was too common."
When the family business moved into the new shop in 1950, Elio installed specially built collectors to keep the dust down. They seem to be working. Elio says he shows no sign of the disease at an age where symptoms should have occurred.
The business Mark is inheriting has changed in other ways, too. The
demand for tombstones has been on a downward trend for 40 years. People live longer, for one thing. When they do die, more and more are opting to be cremated, although 80 percent still choose to be buried. And large, ornate headstones seem to be going out of style.
But the company is expanding into other lines of work, such as producing granite veneers for buildings and granite or marble fireplace mantles.
"All this variety is what really has me excited about the business now," Mark said.
The family shop is stocked with thousands of tons of granite, more than anyone can count. Among the 10-ton chunks is the cornerstone of the old City of Paris building, which the Fontanas acquired for little more than the cost of hauling it away.
They plan to use it in headstones and other monuments for "people who want to have part of San Francisco history," Mark said.
Mark and his father figure they have enough granite and enough business to last at least one more generation.
"Someday Mark's going to have a son," said Elio, slapping another slab of
granite. "And someday that boy is going to be working with this stone, too."