Founded in 1863 by German immigrants Ludwig Hilgartner and Gottfried Schimpf, Hilgartner Stone has made some of the nation’s finest stonework for over one hundred and fifty years. Of course, the company has made a unique mark on both Baltimore’s sculpture and architecture during that time. The company’s work can be found at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Greenmount Cemetery, Walters Art Museum, Maryland Institute College of Art, the Baltimore War Memorial—along with other major landmarks. The company’s most widely used product, however, may also be one of the most humble: the city’s iconic marble steps.
Born in Hessen, Germany in 1832, Ludwig H. Hilgartner immigrated to the United States at age nineteen in 1851. Hilgartner found work as a stone-cutter and, in 1863, worked with stonemason Gottfried Schimpf to form a new stone company, Schimpf and Hilgartner. By 1870, the company maintained an office on Lexington Street in downtown Baltimore and a busy workshop at the southwest corner of Pine and Mulberry Streets. Just a few years later, in 1873, Hilgartner bought out Schimpf. By the next decade, Hilgartner’s two sons were learning the business as apprentices and eventually joined the firm, changing the name to L. Hilgartner and Sons.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Hilgartner’s thirty horsepower stone-cutting engine turned Baltimore County marble into thousands of steps to supply the city’s building boom. The company grew over the years to such an extent that by 1910, it opened a branch office in Chicago. Hilgartner even added a marble purchasing agency in Carrara, Italy and a workshop in Los Angeles to feed the demand created by new aqueduct projects and a burgeoning movie business in California.
The onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s hit Hilgartner hard. The company was able to survive thanks to business from the Dupont Company, which had plenty of money and did a lot of building, taking advantage of cheaper prices for labor and materials at the time. All the same, the company had to layoff a substantial portion of its workforce and close some of its factories. Hilgartner continued to shrink until 1971 when the firm was sold. Once the largest finisher of slab marble in the U.S., Hilgartner had shrunk to just seven employees.
Over the last thirty years, the firm has slowly come back to life. Though much of Hilgartner’s stone work has been on a grand scale, some of its smallest works are marble door stops. Probably made with scrap marble, they were popular at the turn of the last century. They made a brief resurgence in 1976 when Hilgartner offered them at the Baltimore City Fair, where the company set up a booth to showcase its work. The City Fair, begun in 1970, was held for 21 years as a venue to showcase Baltimore’s neighborhoods and institutions. The small door stops were so popular that Hilgartner started receiving orders for them to commemorate weddings, births, and other special occasions. The company’s current owner, Tom Doyle, purchased the firm in 1986 and led the business to grow and take on large projects again.
One of Hilgartner’s recent projects was the conversion the former Maryland Masonic Grand Lodge on Charles Street into “The Grand” event venue. When they started on the project, Hilgarten’s masons were surprised to find a room elaborately decorated with a wide array of marble. A little research revealed that the room began in the early twentieth century as a Hilgartner showroom that promoted the company’s offerings. Today, the room is back in operation as one of the most extravagantly decorated ladies rooms visitors are likely ever to see.
Good fortune has played no small part in keeping Hilgartner Stone alive for over 150 years. If it wasn’t for a move from downtown to south Baltimore in the early years of the twentieth century, the business would have burned down with the rest of the heart of Baltimore during the 1904 fire. Since it became one of the few stone companies still in business after the fire, it flourished during the rebuilding. In addition to restoring stone in old buildings, such as St. Ignatius Church on Calvert Street, today Hilgartner also does plenty of new construction like a chapel in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and a new floor under a dinosaur exhibit at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. The company left its long-time home on Sharp Street in 1975 to move to 101 W. Cross Street, and, in 2016, moved again to the current location on Severn Street.
Watch our Five Minute Histories video on Hilgartner!